Polanski has distanced himself from his own autobiographical material by filming someone else's autobiography -- that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist who lived through the Nazi occupation, escaped the Warsaw ghetto and managed to stay alive through the end of the war. (Szpilman died in 2000, shortly before the beginning of the film's production, at age 88.)
We first meet Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as he plays a Chopin nocturne at the Polish state radio station on September 23, 1939. His performance is interrupted by German bombs, but he manages to maintain a devil-may-care attitude -- one that won't last long. A few days later, the Germans move in, and Polanski shows us, with almost clinical detachment, the process that pushes Szpilman and his family slowly toward the Treblinka death camp.
First there are merely rules about certain locations being off-limits to Jews -- not necessarily something immediately disruptive to their lives -- and limits to how much cash they can have on hand. Next -- how else to enforce such rules? -- they are forced to wear armbands that identify them as Jewish.
Then the real disruption takes place. Their houses are confiscated. They are moved into shabby apartments and, a year after the Germans arrive, are completely segregated in the ghetto. Once the city's Jews are all inside, a wall is put up. It's only a matter of time before the Nazis decide that disease and starvation aren't killing the imprisoned Jews with sufficient speed and that it will be necessary to transport them for extermination.
By a stroke of luck, Szpilman manages to escape and get on a work crew, despite his frail physique. Eventually he even manages to escape the ghetto and to survive in hiding, through the kindness of old Gentile acquaintances and Polish freedom fighters.
Polanski is a stylized, even surrealistic filmmaker, though in recent years his affinity for the grotesque and fantastic has been largely restrained. In The Pianist, he is even more restrained. It makes sense that now, dealing most directly with those experiences, he has chosen not to filter reality through a distorting, subjective lens. To turn the Holocaust into a horror film would be an insult as well as aesthetically unwise.
Brody, finally getting to strut his stuff after a series of lesser roles, gives a finely nuanced performance. We are tied almost relentlessly to his point of view -- his absence from one or two crucial scenes late in the film is jarring.
Yet Polanski deliberately offers only a sketchy sense of Szpilman as an individual. Szpilman starts out a lightweight; by the time circumstances force depth upon him, he has been reduced by necessity to a simple survival machine. There is nothing heroic about his actions or his character. But the survival that distinguishes him from the ghosts of his family and neighbors is less a function of some special inner strength or tenaciousness than of sheer circumstance.