The familiarity of Polanski’s name both as a filmmaker and as a cultural figure extends well beyond the field of film studies. This could lead to a questioning of whether it is necessary or desirable to have a new book on Polanski: what contribution can a new work make to the already existing substantial corpus on the director and what new information or original perspectives are possible in relation to a figure who is already so well known? Is there an unknown Polanski still to be discovered? Or is any work on the director going to be limited to an updating, taking into account his later work, or perhaps the integration of Polish and Anglo critical approaches to the director?
Ewa Mazierska is well aware of these problematic issues surrounding writing on Polanski, particularly the way the obsessive focus on his autobiography can actually serve to mask the director’s work. She states in her introduction,
the perceived closeness or even inter-changeability between the text and the man on many occasions has prevented a serious examination of his work and has driven critics attention away from other aspects of his films. (p. 2)
While this focus on Polanski’s life as the motivation for and explanation of his work cannot simply be wished away, given the extremely public nature of his private life, it definitely warrants a more critical explanation, which is precisely what Mazierska provides in the first chapter of her book. This, however, is not the only innovation of Mazierska’s book, which also departs from the usual chronological approach to a cinematic auteur, which has been particularly apparent in works on Polanski (1). Instead, Mazierska’s book approaches Polanski by means of a number of overlapping perspectives including narratives and characters, visual motifs, music, adaptation and genre. While some of these approaches, such as that based around visual style, are familiar ones, others, such as the attention to music in Polanski’s films, have generally been neglected, giving a particular freshness to these sections of the book. The end result is not an entirely unknown Polanski but a figure composed of both continuities and discontinuities, a figure who is both recognisably familiar and also fresh that Mazierska acknowledges will be only one Polanski among others. To give an outline of Mazierska’s Polanski, this review will look at some key sections of the book, namely those dealing with autobiography, music and genre.
The Autobiographical Effect
As I stated in the introduction, one of Mazierska’s main contributions to the study of Polanski is to directly tackle the question of autobiography, which she refers to with an implicitly Foucauldian phrase, “The Autobiographical Effect” (p. 7) (2). In this first chapter, Mazierska presents the various reasons why Polanski’s biography and cinematic work have been so entangled, including both his cinematic performances and the spectacular life situations he has passed through. These two factors are combined with the sense that Polanski’s films are in some way about his own life. However, Mazierska quickly problematises both the notion of autobiography itself – which, when used in a broad sense, could encompass all works in which a particular sensibility is inscribed – and the concepts of life and identity on which autobiography is based. Drawing on the work of Stuart Hall and Szymon Wróbel, she makes the point that rather than autobiography being a one-way representation of a pre-existing life, there is a “symmetry” between the two so that “just as the author’s autobiography is shaped by his actual life, so his life, or what is regarded as his life, is shaped by his autobiography” (pp. 12-13). This is clearly apparent in the case of Polanski, since critics not only use his autobiography to interpret his films, but derive their knowledge of his life from his films. Mazierska makes reference to Grażyna Stachówna’s term “biographical legend” (p. 13), a fiction of authorship that mediates both Polanski’s autobiography and his films, but to avoid the mythical connotations of this term she prefers to speak about the autobiographical effect in Polanski’s work.
Bearing in mind this complex relationship, Mazierska identifies three key links between Polanski’s life and work, namely: violence; national culture; travel and voyeurism. The first of these is relatively well known, since anyone familiar with Polanski’s films and his autobiography will be aware of the key role violence has played within both. The second link about national culture is less familiar and Mazierska is attentive to the nonchalant and non-sentimental references to both Jewish and Polish culture as well as their absence from a good deal of the director’s work. Rather than detracting from the importance of these cultural factors, however, Mazierska shows how the very downplaying and invisibility of cultural referents in some of Polanski’s work corresponds closely to the figure of the “non-Jewish Jew” (p. 17), diagnosed by Isaac Deutcher, who rather than embrace any particular culture or tradition is able to survive on the margins of several. The one Jewish figure given a central and sympathetic portrayal in Polanski’s oeuvre, Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from The Pianist (2002), is neither religious nor does he strongly identify with either Jewish or Polish culture or tradition. This is not only a figure of secular Jewishness but also one that corresponds with a strain of modern Polish culture which Mazierska traces through writers such as Witold Gombrowicz and the filmmaker Andzrej Munk, both of whom rejected the nationalism inherent in the dominant paradigm of Polish romanticism, in favour of a more critical attitude towards collective, national identity.
Finally, Polanski’s apparent rejection of his cultural roots does not lead to the embracing of the other cultural locations where he has lived and worked. Polanski may be a travelling director, but he is one whose work often focuses on outsiders and marginal figures who are alienated from the cultures in which they find themselves. This leads into the third link Mazierska identifies between Polanski’s life and work, namely voyeurism. Voyeurism is a dominant feature of both the films Polanski admires and his own films as a director, but in Polanski it is less the sign of perversity that a universal cultural condition. Furthermore, voyeurs in Polanski tend to be powerless rather than powerful and what they see is usually misleading. The same applies to Polanski’s own appearances in front of the camera, which Mazierska claims may hide as much as they reveal since they often repeat and exaggerate media clichés about Polanski’s life. The end result is an autobiographical effect that is surprisingly impersonal in comparison to other well-known autobiographical directors such as Federico Fellini, François Truffaut or Woody Allen. For Mazierska, Polanski’s work is autobiographical less in a focus on Polanski as an individual than in the sense of embodying the experiences of larger groups of people, as a kind of “imago” of twentieth-century history and experience.
All That Jazz
Another innovative feature in Mazierska’s book is her treatment of music in Polanski’s work. For Mazierska, Polanski was one of the directors who introduced jazz into Polish cinema and he certainly made a large contribution to the career of Krzystof Komeda, now considered one of Poland’s most significant jazz musicians and composers. But Mazierska is also interested in Polanski’s use of music in his later films to convey mental states, particularly madness, as well as in the importance of music for some of his characters, such as Szpilman.
In relation to the use of jazz, Mazierska provides a fascinating cultural history of Polish film music in the 1950s, showing how, as an effect of censorship, jazz operated virtually underground during this decade and Polish filmmakers tended to use instead modern classical music. In this, they were already breaking from the reliance on symphonic scores but jazz was considered by the authorities to be a sign of Western imperialism and therefore suspect. Rather than eliminating jazz, however, this led to a thriving, rebellious semi-underground jazz scene that was able to emerge after the thaw of 1956. It was from this background that Polanski’s use of jazz emerged, in the form of his long-term use of the music of Komeda – from his short films to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – that Mazierska compares with Hitchcock’s collaboration with Bernard Hermann.
If Polanski’s early films used jazz to reflect non-conformist and antagonistic behaviour, Mazierska shows how, in the cycle of films beginning with Repulsion (1965), music took on the function of expressing madness. In conjunction with the distortion of diegetic sounds, music functions in these films as a kind of auditory hallucination in which the boundaries between the diegetic and non-diegetic are blurred since the world is perceived via the distorted reality of a disturbed character. In both the worlds of Carol (Catherine Deneuve) in Repulsion and Trelkovsky (Polanski) in The Tenant (1976), music and sound are invasive and are typically most discordant when the principal character is alone. Mazierska also shows how Polanski’s later films, such as Death and the Maiden (1994) and The Pianist, not only feature individuals for whom music is important but also encourage us to reflect on the role music plays in the lives of both individuals and society as a whole. Whereas in Death and the Maiden both former torturer and victim share a love of the eponymous composition by Schubert, in The Pianist Szpilman is fully identified with the Chopin music he plays, which also has the narrative function of saving his life. At the same time, Polanski used in these films the modern classical composer Wojciech Kilar, whose music is strongly associated with Polish cinema. While Polanski denied any “patriotic” motives for this choice (p. 111), Mazierska shows convincingly that Kilar’s music contains buried traces of both Polish and Jewish musical traditions and therefore is highly resonant not only with the character of Szpilman but is also “not unlike the references to Polish and Jewish cultures in most of Polanski’s films” (p. 112).
Polanski, Genre and Travel
One of the main strengths in Mazierska’s book is the association of Polanski with travel, not only in the sense of movement between different cultures and locations but as a key generic determinant in his films. The engagement with genre is a familiar feature in Polanski criticism, whether it be his reworking of the private investigator film noir in Chinatown (1974), or his revision of the horror genre in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Mazierska doesn’t limit herself to these “successful” examples, however; she also discusses pastiche in Polanski’s disastrous attempt at re-inventing the pirate genre in Pirates (1986) and his combination of horror and comedy in Dance of the Vampires (1967). Mazierska is also attentive to genre as a way that Polanski distanced his work from dominant tendencies in Polish cinema, in which an authentic “personal” cinema was valorised over generic formulas, which were associated with Hollywood. Polanski’s strategy, as demonstrated by Knife in the Water (1962), was not to embrace genre cinema completely but to develop a hybrid form of cinema that used existing genres but was nevertheless complex and highly artistic. Mazierska draws particular attention to the ways that Polanski frequently subtracts crucial elements of genres, such as murders in a thriller, so he can use “a genre as an empty frame to fill with the objects of his interests” (p. 166).
The most interesting point Mazierska makes about genre in Polanski is to come up with a new genre based on the combination of comedy and travel. Not only are Polanski’s films, even the most tragic, accompanied by an often black or absurdist humour, but the characters within them are usually on the move, relocating houses or travelling for business or pleasure. Even if they stay in the same place, these characters are usually outsiders, which implies a lack of belonging or a sense of dislocation. This is not the travel of the American road movie characterised by young male rebels, speed, a defined trajectory and a division between mobile and sedentary characters. Instead, in Polanski’s films, movement is shown more as a universal cultural condition and the characters tend to be either moving slowly and with difficulty or else rushing frantically around the same spaces rather than actually getting anywhere. Mazierska makes a convincing argument that the ubiquity of movement in Polanski’s films, coupled with a dark vein of comedy, are key characteristics, even constituting a “Polanski Genre” (p. 186), whatever existing genres Polanski’s films are projected onto.
As a conclusion, it is now possible to respond to the question of the necessity and desirability of another book on Polanski. Certainly Mazierska’s book achieves the limited aims of an update to include Polanski’s most recent work (as well as many of the works that have typically been neglected, such as What? (1972) or Pirates) and synthesising the best Anglo and Polish criticism on the director, a synthesis that Mazierska has a unique capacity to perform given her engagement with both contexts (3). However, in its critical engagement with questions of authorship, its attention to the use of music and a rethinking of Polanski’s engagement with genre, as well as other aspects not referred to in this review such as Mazierska’s treatment of the Western and Polish traditions of the absurd, Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller goes well beyond these limited aims and provides a book that makes a fresh and substantial contribution not only to Polanski criticism but also to the wider fields of European cinema and cinematic authorship. We might recognise the image of Polanski we find in Mazierska’s book, but it is refreshing to see it given a new mobility and dynamism.
Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller, by Ewa Mazierska, I.B. Tauris, London, 2007.
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- For two examples of this kind of approach to Polanski, see Ivan Butler, The Cinema of Roman Polanski, The International Film Guide Series, New York, 1970 and Virginia Wright Wexman, Roman Polanski, Columbus Books, London, 1987.
- While Mazierska makes little direct reference to Michel Foucault, the view of authorship presented throughout her book corresponds closely to the way it is presented in Foucault’s essay, “What is an Author”, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1977, pp. 113-138.
- In addition to numerous books and essays on Polish cinema, Mazierska has also widely published on British and European cinema: for example, in the series of books she co-authored with Laura Rascaroli, of which the most relevant to Polanski is Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel, European Cinema, Wallflower, London, 2006.