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Polanski’s lauded ‘The Pianist’ is even more compelling in 4K Ultra HD

Updated: Oct 22, 2023


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Oscar-winner Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish musician, who was relocated into the Krakow Ghetto with his family and thousands of other Jews.


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“THE PIANIST”

4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 2002, R for violence and brief strong language

Best extra: The archival making-of documentary, "A Story of Survival," with director Roman Polanski, star Adrien Brody, and the producers (in standard-def).













“THE PIANIST” isn’t just the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis, it’s the story of director Roman Polanski, too.

In the documentary "A Story of Survival," on the enclosed Region B Blu-ray, Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown”) recounts his daring escape from the Krakow ghetto at age 7. Most of his family died at the hands of the Germans. “I had always wanted to make a movie of that period,” he says. “When I read ‘The Pianist,’ I knew right away I wanted to do it.” Szpilman, a classical musician, wrote his memoirs right after his ordeal, providing a powerful description of the horror and hope of the story.

The film, which won Academy Awards for Best Director, Actor (Adrien Brody, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), and Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), and was nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Film Editing, received high praise from critics and audiences and ranks in the Top 40 among IMDb’s top 250 movies.



(1&2) September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Szpilman was playing on Polish Radio when German bombs knocked the broadcast off the air. (3) The Szpilman family rejoices when the BBC radio announces that Great Britain and France will enter the war against Germany. (4) After heavy shelling and bombing, Warsaw officially surrendered to the Germans on September 28, 1939. (5) Center, Wladyslaw his brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard), and his father (Frank Finlay) are horrified by the entering German soldiers. (6&7) Szpilman and his good friend Dorota (Emilia Fox). She’s shocked to find out it’s an official decree, no Jews allowed in the park and sitting on park benches.





PLOT

The story begins in 1939, when Szpilman’s career is interrupted by the German bombardment of Warsaw. The next year, the Nazis tighten their grip, forcing his family and 18,000 other Jews into the Krakow Ghetto. As most of the Jews are corralled into boxcars and shipped to concentration camps or die from starvation, Szpilman survives by moving from one hideout to another with the help of sympathizers and a German officer.

Brody tells how he prepared for the role. “I got rid of my apartment, dropped my phone lines, sold my car, starved myself, and lost touch with most people. I wanted a glimpse of what it would be like.”

VIDEO

The new 4K restoration is chronicled in a short feature (4K disc and Blu-ray) with cinematographer Pawel Edelman (“Ray”) and the Polish post-production team. Edelman details everything involved in the original 35mm film stock (1.85:1 aspect ratio), captured on Moviecam SL 35mm cameras mounted with Zeiss lens, and the shortcomings of the original 2K digital intermediate and visual effects.

The 2K master, though, was “no longer up to the standards,” he says. In 2018, France-based StudioCanal decided to do a 4K reconstruction of “The Pianist” for its 20th anniversary. All of the original footage – 250 reels, 4 tons of 35mm negatives – were shipped to the DI Factory in Poland, where it was first scanned at a low resolution for a preview master. Then, each reel was examined to determine what footage was needed to match the original edit. That footage was then scanned in TRUE 6K and later down-converted to 4K for assembling the edit and color timing, and to create the new 4K effects shots. The majority of the footage was in admirable condition, though color contamination and image stabilization were issues.



(1&2) Two German officers order Mr. Szpilman to get off the sidewall. Jews were forced to walk in the street gutter. (3) Wladyslaw continues to compose music. (4) In March 1941, the Germans ordered the establishment of a ghetto in Krakow as thousands were relocated. (5) A small boy dies at the feet of Wladyslaw Szpilman.





It’s somewhat of a surprise that Edelman wanted the 35mm film grain to be smaller, but Polanski gave him a free hand in supervising the restoration. The original negative had a good dose of grain, so the post-production folks developed “a whole procedure of de-graining and re-graining the material,” says DI Factory CEO Jedrzej Sablinski.

The overall clarity is still outstanding, with excellent HDR color grading, a de-saturated palette and a darker tone. The grain management is similar to Warner Bros.’ restoration of “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” The fine, tight film grain never overpowers the individual frames. Facial detail and costume fabric textures are superb.

One of the film’s best visuals is a wide shot as the camera follows Szpilman over a rock wall and then cranes upward revealing an infinite line of bombed-out buildings and homes as he walks down the destroyed street. The reconstructed 4K effects are far superior to the original 2K effects.

On the negative side, StudioCanal included 54 minutes of video interviews on the 4K disc, which clearly ate into a possible higher bit rate on the 100 GB disc. The majority of the time it varies from a solid 50 to nearly 70 Megabits per second, but for brief moments it drops to around 20. That’s unacceptable, especially for a top-tier film like “The Pianist.” The peak HDR10 brightness hits 797 nits and averages 114.

AUDIO

The English six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack was ported over from previous discs and still provides a punch during the bombing and surround-sound gun blasts. The music cues from Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (“Bram Stroker’s Dracula”) are nicely balanced, giving full rein to piano movements from Chopin, Beethoven, and Bach.


(1&2) Wladyslaw pleads with Jewish police officer Itzak Heller (Roy Smiles) to help release his brother Henryk, who had been picked up. (3) Jews are forced to walk on a pedestrian bridge to stay within the borders of the ghetto. (4-7) On August 16, 1942, Wladyslaw and his family are corralled to be shipped to a concentration camp. Officer Heller pulls Wladyslaw away from the crowd being forced into boxcars and he returns to the ghetto and finds it empty and full of death.





EXTRAS

The 4K disc and Blu-ray both include a new interview with French film critic Michel Ciment, who pinpoints how many of Polanski’s films – “Knife in the Water” (1962), “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Tenant” (1976) – drew from his horrifying childhood. In “The Tenant,” he plays a man consumed by paranoia.

Carried-over extras include a brief interview with Szpilman’s grandson Daniel, who had a small role in “The Pianist,” and a 20-minute conversation with Harwood, who says he was unfamiliar with Szpilman before reading his memoir. “I thought it was most compelling and a wonderful story.”

There’s also a 30-minute interview with Szpilman’s son Andrzej, who remembers Polanski’s first meeting with his father in the 1970s after one of his concerts and again just before the cameras started rolling.

StudioCanal should be saluted for its aggressive, 4K Ultra HD restoration of such classics as “The Wicker Man” (1973), “The Driver” (1978), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “The Trial” (1962), “The Three Musketeers” (1973), “The Four Musketeers” (1974), “U-571” (2000) and “Cross of Iron” (1977).

But topping the list are David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980), Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), and now, “The Pianist.”

Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1) Wladyslaw and a small number of Jews who weren't sent to concentration camps do masonry work for the Nazis. (2-4) Wladyslaw escapes from the work party and ends up at the home of longtime friend Janina and her husband (Ronan Vibert). They set him up in a safe apartment near the Krakow Ghetto Wall, where he witnesses a Polish revolt that was squashed by the Germans. (5) Wladyslaw leaves the safe apartment after being discovered and ends up at the door of Dorota and her husband. (6) He becomes deadly sick at a new apartment.






The Last Days of the War


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