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?
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.
The cynical view is that Polanski has called the Nazis to the rescue—that he's using the Holocaust as a moral trump card that will make his sins, however repulsive, pale by comparison. But that's not quite fair. The surprise of The Pianist is that it resists emotionally pandering. Polanski told the New York Times that he selected the story because "it was without sentimentalism or embellishments." There's only one scene where he goes for pathos: when Szpilman, afraid of being discovered by the Nazis, runs his hands silently over the keys of a piano. Even that scene is ultimately about restraint—painful, necessary restraint. The Pianist is an excruciating film to watch, and it must have been an excruciating film for a Holocaust survivor to make. No wonder Polanski took so long.
But in career terms, The Pianist couldn't have come soon enough. At 69, Polanski is a major director again for the first time since Chinatown. Moreover, the critical gush may provide just enough cover for Polanski to return to the United States, settle his business with the Los Angeles district attorney, and accept the inevitable lifetime achievement Oscar. (If you thought Elia Kazan's reception was mixed, you ain't seen nothin' yet.) If that happens, Polanski will no doubt have to apologize again for his crime. He might also apologize for hiding his talent.