Where has Roman Polanski been hiding?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 31 2003 11:14 AM

Roman's Holiday

Where has Polanski been hiding?

Polanksi: The Pianist as redemption
Polanksi: The Pianist as redemption

Roman Polanski's new film, The Pianist, is such a knockout that you'd think the director had been churning out stuff like this for years. In Sunday's New York Times, Terrence Rafferty took the bait, writing that The Pianist"seems to contain the essence of every film Polanski has ever made" and calling it "the movie he's been rehearsing for his whole life."

Let's see: A Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-De-Sac (1966), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown(1974), and then what? Until last month, Polanski hadn't released a great movie—or, for that matter, many good ones—in a quarter-century. The unfortunate few who trudged to his recent films were rewarded with second-rate thrillers and comic films about pirates. The Pianist is less a continuation of a great director's career than the redemption of one. Where has Roman Polanski been hiding?

Advertisement

Polanski's films are often seen as exercises in alienation, which is no wonder since the director has spent a great deal of his life on the lam. At age 8, he escaped Krakow's Jewish ghettos just as the Nazis were marching his parents to the death camps. After the war, Polanski finagled a spot in Poland's prestigious Lodz Film School and made his first feature, A Knife in the Water, about a couple that invites a hitchhiker aboard their yacht. But Poland's Communist apparatchiks were in the business of financing propaganda, not films with bourgeois baubles like yachts, and publicly condemned him. With his prospects dimming, Polanski fled to the West.

This cycle—arrival in a new place, artistic success, then a hasty exit—dominated Polanski's career. In England, then America, then France, the director arrived like a force, feverishly learning the language and ingratiating himself to local eminences. But at the same time, he always marked himself as an outsider; his life, he wrote in his autobiography, is like "leaving one limbo for another." That sense of aloneness can be seen in Polanski's best films, many of which he made after a traumatic arrival in a new and alien place.

With a shaky grasp of English, he moved to London and filmed Repulsion, about an unstable woman who kills a man she imagines has come to rape her. Polanski marked his jolting arrival in Hollywood with Rosemary's Baby, in which an expectant mother is surrounded by Satanists. A similar sense of menace pulses through the Los Angeles of Chinatown. That film marked Polanski's return to Hollywood after the gruesome death of his wife, Sharon Tate, who was hacked to death by members of Charles Manson's "family." Before the murder was solved, tabloids reported that Polanski hosted nightly satanic rituals that might have led to Tate's death—which made him, for a time, something of a pariah in his new home.

In 1977, Polanski would run again. Claiming to be working on a photography assignment for Vogue Homme, he lured a 13-year-old girl to his friend Jack Nicholson's house and then, by his own admission, had sex with her. Rather than face prison time, he fled Hollywood for Paris, where he wasn't subject to American extradition laws. (Ever contrite, Polanski then began dating Nastassja Kinski, 15.) In a perverse way, his flight from justice might have made his subsequent films even sharper—if Polanski had been channeling his own feelings of alienation before, he had now upped the ante by becoming a sex criminal.

But the next 25 years were a creative canyon. Perhaps the nature of Polanski's outsider status had simply changed too much. His line was always that he had been innocently persecuted—by reluctant producers, tabloid photographers, the Nazis, the Communists, etc. But in the rape case, he had no one to blame for his alienation but himself. Polanski tried out a number of excuses—the girl had come on to him; she didn't act like she was 13—but he never denied the crucial facts of the encounter. He wrote in his 1984 autobiography, Roman, "I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf."

Or maybe it's that Polanski's French exile hasn't been much of an exile at all. Far from being ostracized by the film community, the director's every whim was indulged. Financial backers sank $12 million into Tess (1979), at the time the most expensive film ever made in France, and more than $30 million into Pirates (1986), a cornpone adventure. Another time, the director convinced backers to buy the film rights to a novel that would enter the public domain only a few month later. His 1988 thriller Frantic was made with the full funding and support of Columbia Pictures, which had apparently forgiven him his sins. Money and artistic freedom had never come so easy—not in the United States, Great Britain, or, certainly, Poland.

During his French period, Polanski's career lurched into dry dock. In Pirates, he cast Walter Matthau as an action hero and tried to pull off a Steven Spielberg-style spectacle; the film only proved he should never attempt comedy again. Frantic, which starred Harrison Ford, feels like stale Hitchcock or, less charitably, stale Brian DePalma. He scraped bottom with Bitter Moon (1992), a nudie show that plays like a two-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Penthouse Forum.

When viewed as the follow-up to these films, The Pianist doesn't look like the capstone of a great career—it looks like a desperate Hail Mary. Polanski had resisted previous entreaties to make a Holocaust film, even turning down Spielberg's offer to direct Schindler's List. But now he has made a movie that is nakedly, brutally autobiographical. The hero, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist caught in the Nazi occupation of Poland, faces the same dilemma Polanski faced in his youth: He has no safe harbor with the Nazis (who would murder him) or his fellow Jews (whose rebellion he rejects). The film even shows children wriggling through sewer pipes, which was Polanski's own trick for slipping in and out of the Jewish ghettos.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.

Books

Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.

Books

You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Behold
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?