This is, perhaps, the most idiosyncratic of all Holocaust movies. It is not the story of The Jews during WWII, or any sort of collective story at all. It is stubbornly, insistently a personal story, a story of an artist's survival, and the survival of art itself. The point of view and central character are that of the pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, who seems to be singled out for special treatment among the other Jews of Warsaw. Why? Because he is a great artist and therefore deserves it. It is as if all of Jewish Poland has decided, unbeknownst to him, that the reknowned Szpilman must survive Nazi occupation and the Final Solution even if no one else does.
Adrien Brody is quietly spectacular as Szpilman. It is a performance of great strength and calm, and bravery in the depths of the transformation the character undergoes. The only complaint I have, and it is a minor one, is that Brody seems too young in the beginning of the picture to be such an icon of Polish culture. But perhaps this only proves the genius of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was just 28 when the first shells hit Warsaw. Brody was roughly the same age when he played the part.
As the Nazi occupation begins, all the Szpilman family react with a sort of indifference that seems almost effete. They are urbane, educated, cultured people, and though they are not what you would call naive about wartime, they do not yet know nor can they imagine the fate which awaits them. It does not occur to them that their city will be destroyed or that they will be herded like cattle into boxcars and railroaded to Treblinka to be exterminated like insects. As the full dimensions of the Nazi horror unfold to Wladek (his nickname), he gradually changes from a man who appears to believe it will all be over soon and life will return to normal to one who is barely alive, barely human even, scrabbling around the ruins of the city searching for something to eat. Through all this Brody gives the character a dignity that endures, somehow, as the world falls apart around him. There are no histrionics, or sermons about "man's inhumanity to man." There's only survival. The picture doesn't have the bleakness you might expect. There's an innocence and light in Brody's eyes that keep you from losing hope for this man and his music. And in the end, when life does return to normal (or as normal as one's life can be after one's entire family has been murdered), you understand finally who Szpilman is and how he survived.