Polish film director Roman Polanski (born 1933) inundates cinema with black humor, alienated and isolated characters, violence, and suspense. Plagued, yet motivated by a lifetime of personal tragedy, Polanski is a director sympathetic to individuals caught in desperate circumstances, an inherent theme throughout his work. The most significant films of his lengthy and unpredictable career are: Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, Chinatown, Tess, and The Pianist.
Horrific experiences have shaped Polanski's life and worldview. Many of Polanski's films may have been influenced by his intense and tragic childhood experiences during the Nazi Holocaust. Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933. His father was a Jewish man from Poland who married a Russian immigrant, and the family moved back to Poland when Polanski was three.
The Nazis invaded Kraków's Jewish ghetto when Polanski was six years old; his father and a Polish policeman helped him escape before both of his parents were sent to concentration camps. His mother died at Auschwitz, but his father survived at a different camp. Polanski made it through World War II by hiding with Catholic peasant families and occasionally fending for himself. This did not prevent him from being used once for target practice by the Nazis and from being seriously injured in a war-related explosion. Often he hid in movie theaters to escape attention and seeing all those films under conditions of severe stress shaped his later thinking about the meaning and purpose of cinema. After the war, his father returned and remarried, and Polanski survived another near-tragedy when a serial killer almost made him his next victim, beating him over the head with a rock.
Polanski left home to go to a technical school and then an art school, where he studied film. He began acting in radio and plays in Kraków and made his screen debut with a small part in Andrezj Wajda's Pokolonie (A Generation), in 1954. He was accepted that year into the select directors' course at the prestigious Lódź Film School. There, he learned to make stripped-down films with a hand-held camera and few other resources. This training gave his films a spare, simple power.
Polanski was almost expelled from the state-sponsored film school for staging and filming Rozbijemy Zabawe (Break Up the Dance), in which he paid hoodlums to crash and disrupt a student party. A similar brand of absurdist humor attracted critics attention in his next short film, Two Men and a Wardrobe, which won five international awards. After graduating, Polanski moved to Paris and made another short film, La Gros et el Maigre, a dark comic view of a sadomasochistic relationship.
Breakthrough and First Exile
Polanski's first feature film, Knife in the Water, a stark psychological thriller about a couple who invite a young hitchhiker about a sailboat and spar with him, won a British Academy Award as the best film of 1962. During the shooting, the lead actress was so unresponsive that Polanski fired a pistol near her ear to get her to react. It's the only feature film Polanski made in Poland. But it was denounced by the ruling Communist Party for showing too many negative features of Polish life.
His funding cut off by the Polish government, Polanski relocated to England after several abortive attempts to escape from behind the Iron Curtain by hiding in the false ceiling of a railcar rest room. His brief marriage to actress Barbara Kwiatkowska (also known as Barbara Lass) in 1959 had already ended in divorce. In England he wrote and directed his classic thriller, Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as a woman forced into contemplating murder. Reviews compared it to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and the film brought Polanski to the attention of critics worldwide as a masterful young maverick. The film was Polanski's personal favorite.
Polanski usually wrote his own screenplays or at least collaborated on them. That was the case on his second film in England, Cul-de-Sac, another story about people trapped in doomed relationships. His next effort, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck, was a comic vampire film with dark overtones. It failed to make much of an impact.
Hollywood Success and Tragedy
After establishing himself as an European auteur, Polanski moved to Hollywood. There he made his most popular feature, Rosemary's Baby, a classic horror film that paved the way for many cheap imitations in subsequent years by other directors mining the vein of Satanism. Polanski was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for the film, which managed to make mass audiences cringe and critics rave. In this and other films, Polanski made fear and terror palpable mostly through his use of brooding psychological techniques; his films were slow and deliberate, though spiked with sudden outbursts of violence, and he never indulged in cheap shocks.
With the success of Rosemary's Baby and his marriage to young actress Sharon Tate, Polanski at age 35 seemed to have the world at his fingertips. Then another tragedy struck. In 1969, Tate, who was pregnant, and three friends were brutally murdered by Charles Manson and his followers in a sensational crime publicized worldwide. Through it all, Polanski somehow continued to work. His next feature, Macbeth, released in 1971, was a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's play, but Polanski drenched the climactic scenes in blood, in an obvious reflection of his own torment over his wife's death.
Polanski continued to take small acting parts, and he usually appeared somewhere in his own movies. In his masterful noir suspense drama, Chinatown, released in 1974, Polanski has a cameo as a thug who slices the nose of Jack Nicholson's protagonist, Jake Gittes. The character, a private investigator trying to puzzle out a web of criminal intrigue connected with a political scandal, spends the rest of the film with his nose in a bandage, adding to his absurdity. The nose injury was one of many Polanski touches that helped elevate the celebrated Robert Towne screenplay to a masterpiece. Polanski made the climax of the film more brutal and hopeless than Towne had scripted it. Chinatown, which earned Polanski his second Oscar nomination, this time for best director, showcases a mature director at the height of his powers, weaving a spellbinding tale and coaxing great performances out of Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. The film won a British Academy Award and propelled Polanski once again to the front ranks of directors.
But again, just as he was at the pinnacle of success, personal troubles would topple Polanski. His follow-up to Chinatown disappointed many critics. It was the dour and frightening psychological thriller The Tenant, in which the director-writer cast himself in the lead role of a paranoid, nearly insane man whose face looks haunted and guilt-ridden. Bizarre, overwrought, and complete with a gruesome, outrageous ending, The Tenant, shot in the same neighborhood where Polanski had lived in Paris, seemed to show that Polanski had not purged himself of his personal demons. Like many of his films, it features a misfit who seems to be losing his moorings.
In 1977, Polanski's Hollywood career imploded when he was arrested for statutory rape. He fled the country rather than face jail time after pleading guilty to charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. The famous director entered a long exile, returning to France. There, he suddenly abandoned his customary themes of fear, terror, and alienation and directed a lustrous, serene, intoxicating, old-fashioned love story, Tess, based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It starred his newest lover, 17-year-old Nastassia Kinski, but was dedicated to Tate. A critical success though hardly a commercial blockbuster, the 170-minute period romance was the most expensive film ever made to date in France, and it netted Polanski another directorial Oscar nomination.
After Tess, however, Polanski found it difficult to get his movie ideas funded and produced. He grew increasingly active as an opera producer, theater director, and actor all over Europe. He directed and starred in an adaptation of Amadeus in Warsaw in 1981 and took the show to Paris in 1982. In 1988, he played the lead role in a Paris production of Kafka's Metamorphosis. In 1997, Polanski's musical Dance of the Vampires, an adaptation of his movie The Fearless Vampire Killers, opened in Vienna.
His movie career proceeded in fits and starts. Following the release of Tess, seven years passed before he wrote and directed another movie, and that was the uncharacteristically lightweight spoof Pirates, a swashbuckling satire starring Walter Matthau in a role Polanski had intended for Nicholson. The film went nowhere and was one of his biggest flops. Next, he directed Harrison Ford in the Hitchcock-like thriller Frantic, about a man trapped in an impossible situation in a foreign land—just as Polanski was. It also was disappointing at the box office and among critics.
In 1989, Polanski was in his mid-50s when he married actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who was in her early 20s. Seigner had appeared in Frantic. The two had a daughter, Morgane, in 1992.
Polanski, now a permanent exile from Hollywood, continued to take acting roles, mostly in French films, and in 1992 directed Bitter Moon, an erotic suspense film that introduced Hugh Grant and included Seigner. Polanski fared a little better among critics, but no better at the box office, with his 1994 film Death and the Maiden, an adaptation of an Ariel Dorfman play starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver. Los Angeles Magazine 's Ivor Davis called it "an intriguing and ambitious tale of torture, brainwashing, revenge and possible false memory."
In 1996, Polanski directed the experimental short film Gli Angeli, based on a music album by Vaco Rossi, then returned to mainstream territory with the thriller The Ninth Gate in 1999. That film, based on a best-selling Spanish novel about a book collector hunting for an obscure Satanic text, starred Johnny Depp and Seigner. Around the time of the release of The Ninth Gate, Polanski told Gary Arnold of the Washington Times, "There are stacks of great books I would have loved to film" but added that the circumstances were rarely right. "Sometimes I think I am always living in the wrong time," he concluded.
Repeated attempts to resolve Polanski's legal situation in the United States proved unsuccessful, even though his victim, Samantha Geimer, had gotten what she wanted in a civil suit reportedly settled for $225,000 and said she felt he should be able to return. "I have suffered enough," Polanski told Ivor. And he told the New Yorker: "I'd like to be able to return … to just be able to work in a normal fashion. I miss the logic and efficiencies of the Hollywood system."
Coming Full Circle
Polanski was in his late 60s when for the first time he made a feature film about the event that had shaped his whole life—the Holocaust. Polanski had toyed with the idea of making a movie about his own experiences, and he had advised Stephen Spielberg on the script for his Holocaust film Schlinder's List and even had turned down an offer to direct that film. The Pianist, released in 2002 and starring Adrien Brody, won critical acclaim worldwide. The story of a Jewish concert pianist who somehow escapes destruction while the world falls apart around him in Warsaw during World War II, the film has obvious autobiographical overtones even though it is based on pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs.
The Pianist, which received the Palm d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, marked a triumphant comeback for Polanski. At Cannes, Polanski said he had wanted to make "a neutral, low-key movie about events that speak for themselves," and said the memoirs "helped me recreate the events without talking about myself or people around me." Polanski was nominated for his fifth Academy Award with a best director nomination for The Pianist for the 2003 Oscars. Polanski won the Oscar but due to his exile was unable to accept the award in person. Two additional Academy Awards were given for work on The Pianist: Brody was recognized as Best Actor and Ronald Harwood won the Oscar for Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
Assessing Polanski's body of work is ultimately a daunting task. Many of his films are demanding, and some are puzzling. But they are almost always intriguing. D. Keith Mano of People described Polanski's directorial career as "a hard-to-pigeonhole mixture of obsession, brilliant self-indulgence and honest commercial pragmatism." J.P. Telotte and John McCarty, in an essay in The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, conclude: "Roman Polanski's importance as a filmmaker hinges upon a uniquely unsettling point of view. All his characters try continually, however clumsily, to connect with other human beings, to break out of their isolation and to free themselves of their alienation." His films, in other words, are a reflection of the struggles of his own difficult life.
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