Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
As bombs destroy his Warsaw-ghetto building in 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in an Oscar-winning performance) remains on his stool as long as possible, creating light-as-air piano sounds. Playing amid the furious blasts represents the only way this Polish Jew knows to combat the ever-advancing violence of World War II.
Roman Polanski’s 2002 drama opens on that perfect grace note before relating the Holocaust through disturbing visuals and situations and giving Szpilman’s journey a profoundly moving sweep by filtering the evil through human ways.
As ghetto atrocities increase, Polanski masterfully balances the film’s exterior nightmare with Szpilman’s internal hell. Polanski depicts the many brutalities with unsettling immediacy, but typically views them from a faraway perspective that matches Szpilman’s — he doesn’t know whether to fulfill his human instinct to hang back and survive or his nationalist drive to stand and fight.
Szpilman is forced to be silent as he moves — like a restless, gaunt spirit — from one abandoned apartment to the next, and Brody meticulously conveys mental, spiritual and physical deterioration. His intensity comes from body language and facial expressions, not carefully placed dramatic monologues. It’s a beguiling performance that feels wholly internalized.
Tackling this subject matter must have been equally personal for Polanski — himself a Holocaust survivor who wandered Warsaw as a young boy after being spared the gas chamber. By turning sights on his demons — and showing how the combination of faith and artistry could redeem even the most detached of souls — Polanski’s film chilled with its catharsis