LOS ANGELES, March 24 (JTA) — “The Pianist,” a searing film of one Jew’s survival in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, scored a major upset when it won three Oscars this week. The film, which is based on a memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, garnered Academy Awards for director Roman Polanski, actor Adrien Brody and screenwriter Ronald Harwood. “Nowhere in Africa,” which depicts a Jewish family that resettles in Kenya after being forced to flee Nazi Germany, won for best foreign film. Most American critics had predicted the three winners for “The Pianist” would be distant also-rans in the Oscar voting. Their victories illustrated once again the enduring hold of the Holocaust on the imagination and sentiments of the film industry. Polanski, who escaped from the Krakow Ghetto as a 7-year-old boy, was not present at Sunday evening’s 75th annual Academy Awards. He is officially a fugitive from the United States for having engaged in unlawful sexual relations with a minor. The statuette was accepted on behalf of the director by presenter Harrison Ford. Polanski had been previously nominated for his films “Tess,” “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Loud applause greeted the announcement of Polanski’s win. Brody, in his first major starring role, portrayed pianist Szpilman, one of a handful of Jews to survive the doomed uprisings of the ghetto and city of Warsaw during the five years of Nazi military rule. An obviously stunned Brody exceeded his allotted acceptance speech time. “My experiences of making this film made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanization of people at times of war,” he said. Dustin Hoffman, who had earlier introduced a brief segment of “The Pianist,” described the film’s theme as “the triumph of the human spirit and of the transforming power of art.” “The Pianist” got off to a slow start by missing out in three lesser categories for which it had been nominated. It also ceded the best picture Oscar to the musical “Chicago,” whose director, Rob Marshall, had been considered the odds-on favorite to win in his category. Less of a surprise was the Oscar for “Nowhere in Africa” as the top foreign film. Another Holocaust-themed film, “Prisoner of Paradise,” about a Jewish entertainer who directs a Nazi propaganda film, failed to win in the documentary feature category. Also outside the winner’s circle, in the documentary short subject category, was “The Collector of Bedford Street,” the story of a developmentally disabled Jewish man in New York who collected more than $125,000 for medical charities.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.