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Viewer Guide: The Pianist and Rabbit Hole

March 19, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Pianist (2002)

This week’s classic is The Pianist, the 2002 World War 2 biographical drama directed by Roman Polanski.

Adapted by Ronald Harwood from Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiographical account of his incredible Holocaust survival story, The Pianist stars Adrien Brody in a career-making and Oscar-winning performance as Szpilman, an acclaimed young classical pianist living with his family in 1939 Warsaw. In opening archival footage, we get a fleeting sense of the city’s European refinement—but the pre-war tranquility is abruptly shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland, with Szpilman’s radio studio recital bombed in mid-performance. Despite initial hopes of quick intervention from France and England, the Szpilman family’s situation rapidly deteriorates—first by drastic restrictions on financial assets, then the required wearing of Star of David armbands, and finally their forced move into the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, where appalling incidents of antisemitic Nazi brutality become commonplace. Szpilman struggles to forestall the inevitable but to little effect, with the family ultimately rounded up for boxcar transport to the Treblinka extermination camp. But when an unexpected twist of fate separates Szpilman from his family, he finds himself “saved”—when his artistic talent is recognized—but utterly alone, struggling to survive in a dangerous, violent world. Will his gifts as a pianist finally prove to be enough to keep him alive?

Also featured in supporting roles are Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman as Szpilman’s parents, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner and Jessica Kate Meyer as his brother and sisters, Emilia Fox as a fan whose admiration becomes life-saving, and Thomas Kretschmann as a Nazi captain whose love of music provides an unexpected reprieve from a brutal, terrifying reality.

Wladyslaw Szpilman’s Holocaust survival story held strong personal resonance for director Roman Polanski. Born in Paris in 1933, Polanski’s Polish father returned his family to Krakow in 1937. But when the city fell under Nazi control, young Polanski was expelled from grade school and his family forced into the Krakow Ghetto. Polanski’s parents were ultimately imprisoned in different concentration camps, with his mother murdered at Auschwitz. Even though Polanski managed to survive the war through periods of sheltering with Polish Catholics, he nevertheless did witness scenes of shocking violence so vividly recreated in the film. Polanski’s first choice to play Szpilman was actually Joseph Fiennes, but when prior commitments rendered Fiennes unable to participate, some 1400 actors were auditioned before Polanski chose Adrien Brody. To prepare for the role, Brody left his girlfriend, gave up his apartment, sold his car and dropped 30 pounds, practicing the piano several hours a day until he could master some of the Chopin selections featured in the movie. All the hard work paid off when Brody, at age 29, became the youngest actor to win the Best Actor Oscar. Ronald Harwood was also honored with the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, with Polanski winning for Best Director; Polanski, however, was unable to attend the ceremony due to the unresolved 1977 rape charge that led to his exile from America. In interviews, Polanski has commented that The Pianist is his personal favorite of all his films.


Rabbit Hole (2010)

This week’s indie is Rabbit Hole, a 2010 drama directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, Rabbit Hole stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie Corbett, an upper middle class suburban couple living a catalog-perfect life in a handsome old Long Island house. But it doesn’t take long to discover the terrible personal tragedy that’s the elephant in the room: the accidental death of their four year-old son Danny just eight months earlier, when he was hit by a car while chasing his dog into the street. Becca and Howie are trying to do all the right things to grieve and move on—donating clothes, taking down drawings from the refrigerator, attending group therapy—but deep down both know it’s really not doing much to soften their pain. Howie compulsively watches a video of Danny on his phone, while Becca withdraws into herself, increasingly unable to tolerate anything that irritates her, which often includes her mother Nat, played by Dianne Wiest, and her wayward sister Izzy, played by Tammy Blanchard. Furthermore, secrets are beginning seep into the cracks of the couple’s relationship: Howie starts taking an interest in Gabby, another bereft parent in group therapy played by Sandra Oh, while Becca begins shadowing the teenaged driver who unwittingly hit her son, played by Miles Teller. Although they struggle not to admit it, the couple is clearly tumbling down an emotional rabbit hole, with no idea where it will take them…or what they’ll be like on the other side.

Originating as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole premiered on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in January 2006, featuring a cast that included Cynthia Nixon as Becca, John Slattery as Howie and Tyne Daly as Nat. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the production garnered five Tony Award nominations, with Cynthia Nixon taking home the year’s Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress. Initially reluctant to option his play for the movies, Lindsay-Abaire was assured by Nicole Kidman and her producing partners that he would be fully involved with director John Cameron Mitchell in the adaptation process. In opening up the script for film, Lindsay-Abaire was able to expand the story to include scenes only mentioned in the play, including the grief support group and the character of Gabby played by Sandra Oh. Released to positive reviews in 2010, the film earned Nicole Kidman the third Best Actress Oscar nomination of her career.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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