The Defining Moments of Roman Polanski

This week... The Ghost director Roman Polanski
€œI can only say that whatever my life and work have been, I'm not envious of anyone - and this is my biggest satisfaction.€
It must be impossible to have just the one single opinion about Roman Polanski. Whilst he committed a heinous sexual act on a minor you are also talking about a man who lost his mother in the Holocaust before reaching the age of ten and who had the murder of his pregnant wife exploited in a horrible media circus. He has been able to rouse apathy and empathy in equal measure but still throughout all this chaos has continued to bury himself into his work producing a fine resume of a director who has spread his wings in a variety of different genres. Before his exile from the United States he achieved the unique distinction of being able to achieve commercial success whilst still maintaining a distinctively European style of filmmaking. Since then he has continued to develop a portfolio of a director who has always put the quality of his work ahead of any commercial interest and for that he should be applauded. If you were to write down his life in the form of a script the story would appear to be too farfetched and unbelievable but as is often the case the truth is stranger than fiction and Polanski has without doubt lived a highly cinematic life with all the joy, tragedy and resurgence that you might expect from a hard hitting drama. To celebrate the release of The Ghost on Blu-Ray I thought it would be a nice idea to take a look at ten defining moments in the life and career of director Roman Polanski.


Roman Polanski was born in Paris, France on August 18th, 1933. At the age of three he moved to his father€™s native Poland to live in Krakow where the family would have had no idea of what horror was in store in the forthcoming years. A few years later the Nazis had invaded and the Krakow ghetto was sealed off leaving Polanski to survive for himself whilst unbeknownst to him his mother was exported to a concentration camp. As Polanski smuggled goods in and out of the sanctioned area, his mother met her demise in Auschwitz; four months pregnant and unmercifully gassed. Like so many children and parents there was never the chance to say goodbye. There was only panic. Roman€™s father was sent to the concentration camp Mauthausen-Gusen but managed to push his son through a hole in the wall so that he could flee Krakow. In his heart he probably anticipated that this was would be the last time he would ever see his son but he was lucky to not be among the unfortunate 95,000, who died in the camp and was reunited with his boy when the war ended in 1945. During his time in hiding Polanski lived with non-Jewish poles and slept in a barn like a farmyard animals besides the cows. Disorientated, hungry and confused he no doubt spent the majority of the time wondering about the fate of his parents. Indeed it seems likely that no amount of wealth, celebrity or success could ever make one forget about such a harrowing childhood. One could be forgiven for wanting to live a quiet life after such a turbulent entrance into the world but for Polanski this was just the beginning of a whirlwind existence.


Like so many of today€™s great directors Polanski found his love of film stemmed from the intense escapism that the cinematic medium offered. Whereas for someone like Scorsese the cinema was filled with larger than life companions who he couldn€™t meet playing out on the streets due to his asthma, for Polanski the ability to escape into another world was of far greater consequence as he found himself growing into adolescence in a war ravaged Poland. When the First World War had ended Poland had become an independent country for the first time in over an hundred years. This freedom however was short lived. Even after enduring World War II the Poles found themselves miserably suffering under Soviet rule. The country had no independence, had lost a vast quantity of its land, wealth and agricultural resources and more than twenty percent of the entire population had perished. As you might have gathered from the above description this was not the ideal state of living for a motherless twelve year old boy. Nevertheless, Polanski distracted himself from these concerns by immersing himself in the world of media. He worked on a Marxist radio program and acted on the stage before going on to make a series of short films at Lodz Film School. The most notable of these efforts was the 14 minute short Two Men and a Wardrobe which earned the director a string of international film awards. After a few more shorts took Polanski from the fifties into the sixties he prepared to embark upon his first feature length film project.


Knife in the Water features just three characters and is reminiscent of a number of Hitchock films in its approach to building tension through character based details and key psychological suspense. Polanski had a vested interest in playing the role of the young hitchhiker who disturbs the equilibrium of the married couple but was pretty much told straight that he wasn€™t attractive enough to play the part. This must have been quite the blow at the time for a man who very much fancied himself as an actor. Nevertheless however the film became very critically successful becoming often cited as one of the greatest debut films of all time and receiving a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony. Roman Polanski would go on to receive four more Oscar nominations before finally winning Best Director in 2002 for The Pianist.


Polanski experienced further critical success with two more psychologically fuelled films, Repulsion (which became his first English language film) and Cul De Sac. The latter film hinted at a more comedic direction and in 1967 Polanski fully embraced the comedy genre with the horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers. Whilst the film received quite mixed reviews it still serves as an important historical landmark for being the place where Polanski met and fell in love with actress Sharon Tate. It was hardly love at first sight for the pair as Polanski was initially infuriated with the actresses€™ inexperience but as the production progressed they formed a solid bond and married just a year after having met. As an easy going woman with breathtaking good looks I€™m sure few men would have wasted any more time in arranging to send her down the aisle.


Towards the summer of 1968 Roman Polanski seemed to all extents and purposes to be one of the most fortunate men in Hollywood. He had just made his first American film Rosemary€™s Baby which quickly became his biggest critical and commercial success. On July 29th, 1968 esteemed film critic Roger Ebert offered the film his full four star treatment and praised the picture as a €œbrooding, macabre film, filled with the sense of unthinkable danger.€ Again like Hitchcock, Polanski had been able to present horror with a clear conviction of character and psychology. He had also become one of the few European directors to make a successful film in Hollywood without having to betray any of his artistic integrity. He was a commercially successful director respected by critics and his peers. At home his beautiful wife was happily pregnant with his child. Could life really get any better? The answer was no and it was in fact about to get worse. Much, much worse. Like most psychopaths he was and in fact still is someone who believed that the world revolved around him. His gang were a bunch of degenerates desperately clinging onto his propaganda to try and validate their pathetic existence. His name was Charles Manson and he was about to change the director€™s life. Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant and entertaining friends when her house was invaded by strangers who killed everyone present. At the time there appeared to be no motive and Polanski was as shocked as he was upset. Unable to trust anyone he lived for months in a constant state of paranoia suspecting even close friends and associates. Then whilst undergoing a stint in jail in November 1969 a young woman by the name of Susan Atkins bragged to an inmate that she was responsible for Sharon Tate€™s murder. After that the truth began to unravel piece by piece. In the early summer of 1970 it finally became clear that Manson was the deranged leader of a cult who had ordered his followers to slaughter wealthy people in their homes as a form of revenge for his own inability to be embraced by the world of show-business. Sharon Tate was brutally stabbed sixteen times in the back and chest. Even whilst undergoing these barbaric attacks she had the wherewithal to beg for the life of her unborn child. In the most callous and calculating act of all this wish was denied. This was the scene that Roman Polanski would return to as he rushed home shortly after finishing work on Rosemary€™s Baby. He had begun the year on top of the world but would end it feeling emotionally drained.


There is no medicine for tragedy but there are stages of recovery and for Polanski, his second American feature Chinatown became one of those key stages. This is not to suggest however that filming Chinatown was by any means plain sailing and like the majority of great films made around this time the shoot turned out to be extremely stressful. The biggest source of conflict revolved around the relationship between the director and lead actor Jack Nicholson who would engage in a series of heated confrontations on set. At one point Polanski even pulled a Herzog and ended up smashing Jack Nicholson€™s portable television. The director was not too enamoured with actress Faye Dunaway either. He described her as €œa gigantic pain in the ass€ who €œdemonstrated certifiable proof of insanity.€ One of their confrontations ended up with Polanski pulling strands from out of the actresses€™ hair. Not that he needed any more conflict but Polanski also took it upon himself to irritate screenwriter Robert Towne by forcing him to sit down and rewrite the script with him. Towne would rant at Polanski non-stop about what he felt was an outrageous decision but Polanski persisted regardless as was in his nature. Despite key members of the cast and crew acting like a bunch of ego-mad second graders the film became a massive success culminating in eleven Oscar nominations (but only the one win for Towne) and becoming firmly established as one of the greatest films ever made.


In 1977 Roman Polanski embarked upon an assignment to shoot glossy photographs of young girls for the glamorous French magazine Vogue Hommes. One champagne induced photo session later and the director found himself in serious trouble. He had taken advantage of the girl and his actions were inexcusable. He faced a six count indictment for furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd act on a thirteen year old girl, rape by use of drugs, unlawful sexual intercourse, perversion and sodomy. If he was convicted of all six of these accusations then he could face up to fifty years in prison. In a cruel irony the trial took place on the eight year anniversary of Sharon Tate€™s murder. Polanski pleaded guilty to the least serious charge of unlawful sexual intercourse and spent a series of short stints in jail before final sentencing was announced to take place on February 1st. The day before the trial however Polanski drove to Los Angeles airport and took a flight to London. With Polanski out of the country no sentencing could emerge and the director soon took up residence in his birthplace of Paris, France. Despite the Los Angeles District Attorney€™s attempt to extradite Polanski the French officials refused; reaffirming the country€™s long standing rule of not allowing their citizens to be extradited under any circumstance. As a result all of Polanski€™s films from the late seventies to present have been filmed in European locations.


Roman Polanski married exotic actress Emmanuelle Seigner in the summer of 1989. The couple have two children together and she has starred in three of Polanski€™s films, the suspenseful but disengaging Frantic (1988), the colourful but indulgent Bitter Moon (1992) and the intriguing but unbelievably repetitive The Ninth Gate (1999).


While the script for Schindler€™s List was doing the rounds, Steven Spielberg offered Roman Polanski the chance to make the film but the director felt that his experiences of Krakow would be too painful to relieve and so declined the offer. Some ten years later however Polanski finally embraced the dark chapter of his childhood with very careful supervision of a script which would adapt the memories of pianist Wladysaw Spizlman in documenting his experiences as a survivor during the Holocaust. As someone who had experienced the horrors of Krakow first-hand Polanski was very, very careful in his approach to depicting the tragedy. His aim was to make the camera seem invisible by refusing to use elaborate shots that might in some way trigger an emotional response from audience members. Instead he wanted to leave them cold, to show war as the enemy and the people as the victims and to resist any temptation to sentimentalise the action. His approach was a resounding success as he became one of only a handful of filmmakers to win the Palme d€™or and best director academy award for the same film. At 69 years of age Polanski also became the oldest man to win the Best Director gong although this feat was short-lived as just two years later Clint Eastwood won the same award for Million Dollar Baby at the remarkable age of seventy four. Remarkable that is to still be churning out high quality films. That€™s if we can call Million Dollar Baby a high quality film but I digress....


Polanski€™s most recent film The Ghost Writer was today released on blu-ray. Amazingly during Polanski€™s arrest in Switzerland in September 2009 the director still maintained firm control as the film headed into post-production which included completing the editing whilst locked in a Swiss prison. It seems that nothing is able to deter this man€™s focus from this work and I guess there is a real artistic honour in that. The film received generally positive reviews but did not blow many critics€™ minds and performed poorly at the Box Office. On 12th July 2010 Roman Polanski was freed from house arrest. Having just taken one glimpse at the beautiful establishment I have to say that I€™m not sure that I would ever want to leave. Regardless the director was permitted to move further than the confines of his garden. Numerous filmmakers including the likes of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Pedro Almadovar all campaigned for his release.
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