b. Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański, August 18, 1933, Paris, France

It is difficult to get a handle on Roman Polanski. His eclectic body of work ranges from pinnacle achievements in European art cinema to camp goofiness; from blockbuster Hollywood thrillers to literary period pieces; from historical prestige pictures to modern-day stage adaptations. At the same time, his tumultuous personal life is marked by wartime atrocities, horrendous mass murder, a criminal conviction, global fame, great loves, and exile. Through it all – and however much the personal and the professional may overlap and influence one another – Polanski’s cinema remains remarkably consistent in style, themes, narrative preferences, and, more often than not, end results.

Polanski’s parents made the retrospectively unfortunate decision to move to Poland three years after his birth in 1933. When Germany invaded in 1939, his family was forced into the Krakow ghetto. His father was sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria, which he survived, and his mother to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. At nine, Polanski escaped the ghetto and travelled the countryside under the guise of being Catholic. Staying with strangers wherever he could, Polanski was occasionally abused but was generally sheltered from the Nazi storm.

Participation in a post-war Polish state radio program for children led to a stint with the Young Spectators’ Theatre, where Polanski secured his first leading theatrical role at the age of 14. As a young boy in the ghetto, he had ignored warnings against watching the German propaganda films projected on walls, and had subsequently developed a love for that medium as well. His first screen appearance was in Three Stories (1953), and in 1955 he appeared in A Generation, the first film by groundbreaking Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Admitted to the National Film School in Lodz, Polanski studied art history and photography and was required to complete several films of varying lengths and forms. Following Lenin’s dictum that, “To us, the cinema is the most important of all art forms,” students had access to films not available to the public and to valuable equipment with which to gain hands-on experience.

The Bicycle (1955), Polanski’s first short, was a dubious start. A mix-up with the negative resulted in a total loss. His first completed film, Murder (1957), a brief depiction of what the title suggests, takes place in the tight confines of one room, with Polanski’s affinity for singular settings and few characters evident even at this preliminary stage. His second short, Teeth Smile(1957), is an early approach toward voyeurism, where the complex nature of sexual desire and malicious intent hints at several Polanski features to follow. With Break Up The Dance (1957), Polanski tried his hand at cinema verite, capturing life as it happens, but only after setting up the conflict and arranging for outside aggression to violate a walled in, complacent sense of security.

Two Men and a Wardrobe

Two Men and a Wardrobe

Two Men and a Wardrobe, Polanski’s award-winning 1958 breakthrough, again features an external force disturbing a generally sedate populous, as two men lug around a large cabinet causing much distress to those around them. Polanski’s visual compositions are more fully developed than in the earlier shorts, particularly in his focal fluctuation above and below the horizon line and in his use of the wardrobe’s mirror to create a deceiving visual humour. Like all his student films, the picture contains little to no dialogue, something Polanski felt had no place in a short.

The Lamp (1959) is a surreal work about a doll maker who toils in his cramped, grimy workshop, which soon burns down, perhaps as a result of the malevolent dolls. Polanski’s thesis film,When Angels Fall (1959), is his most elaborate and intimate early portrait of a solitary individual. An elderly lavatory attendant recalls her war-ravaged past, as black and white shots of her gritty surroundings are juxtaposed with her memories in luxuriant colour. The work was accepted as Polanski’s diploma film, but he neglected to compose the mandatory written assignment and subsequently never earned his graduation certificate.

Though preproduction had already started on his first proposed feature, Knife in the Water (1962), the script did not receive the requisite governmental approval due to its lack of necessary social commitment. In wake of the objections, Polanski and his first wife, Barbara Kwiatkowska, moved to France where he made two additional shorts: The Fat and the Lean (1961), with André Katelbach as a slovenly lazy man and Polanski as his jester and servant, and Mammals (1962), a slapstick comedy with two men alienated in a snow-covered landscape. The silliness in these films would be relatively rare for Polanski; the focus on a few characters in a distinctly enshrouding environment would not be.

Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water

Polanski made a few revisions to Knife in the Water’s screenplay, barely appeasing the Ministry of Culture. Though the script was ultimately accepted, it remains unusual for its time and country of origin, with no mention of war and an avoidance of any overt politicisation. Polanski focuses on just three main players in one general location, over roughly a 24-hour period. Antagonism is established between a married couple and exacerbated with the introduction of a young hitchhiker. The limited boat setting leads to triangular compositions stressing the tension – sexual and otherwise – and the capricious moral choices one can face in bouts of brains and brawn. While occasional levity breaks some of the anxiety (though even it seems confrontational), most of the time the characters pick fights and partake in various forms of masochistic aggression. The ensuing battle of wits, provocation, and self-control is shown in intense wide-angle close-ups, which Polanski would continue to employ. Diverse camera angles keep the restrictive spaces visually interesting, and it is obvious that Polanski places a great deal of importance on framing, something he attributes to the study of still photography that was part of his artistic education.

The open ending of Knife in the Water, its minimal social commentary, and its lack of condemnation regarding adultery drew widespread criticism and the film was denied a premiere, stuck with a limited release, and was gone from Polish theatres in two weeks. Internationally, the picture was a phenomenon, landing on the cover of Time magazine and receiving an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Polanski struggled to garner interest in his next proposal, If Katelbach Comes, so in the meantime he directed River of Diamonds, part of the omnibus film The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964).

With producer Eugene Gutowski, Polanski continued pitching Katelbach to no avail. Instead, the horror movie-seeking Compton Group, a British studio better known for exploitation pictures and soft porn, showed interest in another of the duo’s projects, Repulsion (1965). Written by Polanski and Gérard Brach in 17 days, this was their first of eight feature film collaborations. In the psychological thriller, Carol, a mentally disturbed manicurist played by newcomer Catherine Deneuve, conveys an exterior meekness betrayed by paranoid hallucinations and eruptions of violence. Polanski chronicles her mad descent by twisting her subjective perspective via skewed imagery, exaggerated set design, and a focus on abject, inanimate objects. In this, Repulsionmaintains a visual vantage-of-character association that Polanski continually applies, and is often integral to his thematic interest in the uncanny effects of isolation. We see the distressing world through the protagonist’s wild eyes, their agony made evident by the overstated depiction of their formidable surroundings.

Removing herself from the harsh outside world, Carol seeks shelter in her stifling apartment, but this proves to be anything but a comforting refuge, especially when her delusions take over the very residence itself. These sequences are particularly potent thanks to rather ingenious prop manipulation, the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor, and a mélange of sound mixing together with Chico Hamilton’s jazz score, unusual sound effects, and the ambience of the apartment. The violence and rather explicit sexual noises contributed the film’s X certification in England. A third murder was removed, the result of censorial as well as thematic concerns (it was deemed too rational).

Popular though it may have been, Polanski viewed Repulsion as “an artistic compromise” that never achieved the full quality he sought. He described the special effects as “sloppy,” and of all his films, “the shoddiest – technically well below the standard I try to achieve.”(1) Still, and most importantly for Polanski, it was “a means to an end.”(2)

Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac

That end was Cul-de-Sac (1966), as Katelbach became known, its new title suggesting the entrapment of the main characters. Polanski pits two solitary individuals against two others. The first pair, George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac, Denevue’s sister), are isolated by choice. The second, Richard (Lionel Stander) and the quickly deceased Albie (Jack MacGowran), are isolated by the necessity of a botched robbery. When the latter encroach on the former, potential violence creates a looming tension that merges comic eccentricity with sexual threat (and a threat to sexuality). As with the couple in Knife in the Water, there is animosity between George and Teresa before the others arrive, and Richard in particular only makes matters worse as an outsider crashing into already stormy waters. With an antagonism brought forth by competition, the three main protagonists are quick to quarrel and find a fight. High contrast black and white imagery gives the film an edgy appearance and the proximity of the characters results in palpable strain further stressed by tight close-ups emphasising gruelling anxiety, unsettling facial contortions, and absurdly amusing tonal shifts.

The troubled shoot was marred by bad food, worse weather, and contentious working relationships with the cast. The multilingual production often resulted in an abandonment of the script in favour of on-set deviations. Still, Polanski considers Cul-de-Sac among his finest works, calling it in 1970 his best – “true cinema,” he added years later (3).

After Filmways producer Martin Ransohoff proved eager to secure US distribution for Cul-de-Sac, Polanski teamed with the interested supporter to release his next feature, “a fairy tale comedy about vampires” (4) called The Vampire Killers (1967). Playing with the conventions and icons of the vampire film, Polanski clearly had some fun with his fourth feature. The narrative is all over the place and many of the performances are hackneyed to say the least, but the production design by Wilfred Shingleton is excellent, and certain sequences, like the concluding dance, are clever and quite funny.

In this Transylvania community where something is noticeably amiss, there is an obvious though unspoken fear. The townsfolk are comically in denial, in opposition to the paranoia that grips so many other Polanski characters. The exception is Professor Abronsius, played by MacGowran, apparently the one main actor from Cul-de-Sac Polanski got along with, and Alfred, played by Polanski himself. As the primary female character, Ransohoff insisted on Texas-born starlet Sharon Tate, with whom Polanski fell in love and would soon marry.

The Fearless Vampire Killers

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Once filming was complete, Polanski found himself at odds with Ransohoff, who cut about ten minutes from the final picture, changed the title to The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, added a cartoon prologue, and rearranged the music. Upset with the whole process, Polanski refused to enter the 1967 Berlin Film Festival and attempted to take his name off the film. Further confusing the movie’s history, it was released in the UK (where Polanski maintained distribution rights) as Dance of the Vampires.

Though Vampire Killers was something of a divergence from the type of film that had garnered Polanski international attention, his reputation still stood as a director of thrillers, and the quality of the work was still evident. Based on Polanski’s known fondness for skiing, Paramount’s rising young producer Robert Evans tempted the director to Hollywood in order to work on Downhill Racer (1969). Upon arriving in California, Polanski also received the yet-to-be-published galleys of Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby. However much he may have liked skiing, Polanski had found his next project. Exploitation director William Castle had purchased the rights to the satanic story with the intention of directing the picture himself. Though he was initially sceptical of this foreigner – an attitude that extended to the studio heads when the film went $400,000 over budget and fell behind schedule – the film was a tremendous financial success, even if it unsurprisingly received a “Condemned” stamp from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

Unlike Repulsion’s Carol, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is a sociable young woman, pleasant and not readily withdrawn at first. But her unease is grounded in a more tangible reality, however seemingly fantastic. Her paranoia is well founded – these aren’t hallucinations. Hers is a very real terror and the maliciousness of those around her is genuine. Long before she suspects something wicked, the audience is alerted to the strangeness of her surroundings. People stare with perceived suspicion, strange noises emanate through the walls, and the apartment is in a state of disrepair, as if it were Repulsion’s dwelling post-Carol. Though the apartment is spacious, Rosemary grows insular, and soon the metaphoric walls begin closing in, leading to a full-fledged mental breakdown.

Polanski’s lack of religious conviction led him to maintain a loophole in the film’s narrative, by which he could cast doubt on the “child of Satan” scenario. He was intent on keeping the conclusion ambiguous, the result being a film that is “as much a psychological study of pre-natal delusion as it was an outright horror movie.”(5) Looked at another way, as David Ehrenstein ponders, what is worse – “a satanic child, or a woman who thinks she’s given birth to a satanic child?”(6).

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby

For the first time working off someone else’s material, Polanski’s adaptation process took about a month (and the first draft was 270 pages), but he was ultimately rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Tragically, Rosemary’s Baby marked the final score by Krzysztof Komeda, an essential Polanski faithful since 1958, who died as the result of an accident in April 1969.

The 34-year-old Polanski was riding high on the box office success of Rosemary’s Baby, with his pick of films to follow: work on another Ira Levin novel, the science fiction project A Perfect Day, a film of Paganini, or perhaps even a retelling of the ill-fated Donner Party (a group of pioneers who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada and had to resort to cannibalism to survive). Eventually, he moved forward adapting Robert Merle’s novel The Day of the Dolphin. This adaptation, however, would be thwarted by a second tragic event in Polanski’s life – the brutal murder of his pregnant wife and several of their friends by members of Charles Manson’s cult-like group “the Family.”

While the country and especially Hollywood reeled in the chaos that ensued, the distraught Polanski carried on as best he could. Partially seeking to avoid the criticism he would have undoubtedly faced had he made a comedy or horror film after the murders (the emotional extremes at either end of the generic spectrum), Polanski chose a Shakespearian adaptation as his next picture, presumably a safe choice. Shown disinterest by conventional studios, Polanski partnered with the unlikely executives at Playboy Productions for Macbeth (1971), with Playboy securing $1.5 million of the budget and distributor Columbia supplying an additional $1 million. The shoot took six-months and the film went half a million dollars over budget; Columbia had director Peter Collinson waiting in the wings should Polanski need to be taken off the project.

Macbeth received a generally poor critical and commercial reception as well as a meagre release, with the connotations of the Playboy name something of a hindrance for “serious” filmgoers. In addition, the Manson murders led to distraction from the film itself. The brutality of the picture was commonly seen in light of this real life violence. No matter how vicious the source material may have been to begin with, it was widely assumed Polanski was exercising these horrors.

In any case, the film is a solemn, mournful, and visually satisfying version of one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic works. Polanski does great justice to this story of desire, murder, and madness. As envisioned by the director, Macbeth (Jon Finch) is a “young, open-faced guy, who is gradually sucked into a whirlpool of events because of his ambition,”(7) and his transformation into a resolutely driven obsessive is a slow but steady development. A snowball of violence rolls as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) become anxiously paranoid and begin to mentally unravel. Delirious dream states of surreal panic torment the couple. Macbeth grows increasingly withdrawn and suspicious, and retreats within his castle, where Polanski stages a visually tightening drama.

After the doom and gloom of Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent personal life, Polanski looked to escape into lighter territory. Perhaps it was even as simple as James Greenberg contends: with What? (1972), Polanski “just wanted to have some fun with his friends.”(8) A huge hit in Italy – where it was shot and where Polanski resided for several years – and a mild success throughout the rest of Europe, What? was a considerable flop in the US, even when it was later re-cut and re-released in the wake of Polanski’s rape case as the exploitive and sleazy sounding Roman Polanski’s Diary of Forbidden Dreams.

What?

What?

What? follows tourist Nancy (Sydne Rome) as she spends a few frivolous days at a large villa inhabited by an aimless motley crew of peculiar individuals, including an against-type Marcello Mastroianni as a slimy former pimp, and Polanski as the curiously named Mosquito. In this house of sexual decadence, there is a mutual dislike and distrust between the houseguests. To be sure though, this single setting – financial backer Carlo Ponti’s own extravagant villa – is certainly not the uncomfortably intimidating enclosed space of Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby.

One could stretch to say that What? maintains the Polanski tradition of a character out of their element – Nancy is a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language (shades of Frantic to come) – but such a parallel is wobbly to say the least. Still, as oddly out of his cinematic canon as What? may be, Polanski’s foray into comedy was not in itself unusual. Even his serious films find room for humour, however dark. The final punch line of this sexual lark is a rare self-conscious gesture from the director, as the characters allude to the fact that they are in a film – a film called What?

Chinatown

Chinatown

With dwindling funds and no solid work in sight, Polanski started looking elsewhere for his next endeavour. That elsewhere was back to Hollywood and Paramount. Parsing through Robert Towne’s 180-plus page first draft of Chinatown (1974), contention came as he and the screenwriter worked eight hours a day for eight weeks, whittling down the expansive script. Polanski envisioned a more pessimistic film with a “more truthful” unhappy ending,(9) concluding in “utter tragedy.”(10) He also felt J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) should go to bed together at some point, and that in a film called Chinatown, a scene actually needed to take place there.

Polanski broadened his scope of intrigue and suspicion to encompass the wider ramifications of bureaucratic corruption, while bearing his continued preoccupation with character identification and having much of the story told subjectively through a primary protagonist. Like Rosemary, Gittes deals with the frustration of no one believing, no one understanding. People hold sway over others and there is an ever-present and deeply imbedded establishment of power and control, but here the conspiracy is undeniably valid. Atypical to this point in Polanski’s work is a Hawksian exploration of a man who is good at his job and has a job to do, but the levels of sexual and political complexity prove to be vast and vastly disturbing to this unsuspecting detective.

Initially with legendary cinematographer Stanley Cortez behind the camera (he was replaced by John Alonzo ten days into filming), Polanski’s Chandleresque tale of a private dick’s investigation into a shady land grab tinged with incest and murder was filmed in Panavision and colour, against the style of the classic Hollywood noir that it otherwise resembled. Though Polanski approached Chinatown more as a job than a passion project, years later he ranked it amongst his own work just below The Pianist, and it now stands as one of the greatest films from one of Hollywood’s greatest decades.

While Polanski struggled to find backing for his next proposed film, Pirates, which was a work of passion, he decided to adapt Roland Topor’s Le locataire chimerique, a book Paramount already had the rights to. Set in and around a Parisian apartment building, The Tenant (1976) starts ominously with an off-putting concierge telling Trelkovsky (Polanski) about the suicide attempt of the previous occupant, Simone Choule. There is, then, a mysterious prior drama, similar to Rosemary’s Baby, where a conflict existed, is still unresolved, and the protagonist becomes inadvertently drawn in. A repeated outsider exhortation of “they’re all in it together” and “something odd is going on in my building” drives the related apprehension.

As Trelkovsky explores his new room, Polanski devotes considerable attention to objects both mundane and grotesque. He fondles Simone’s belongings, her clothes, trinkets, makeup, and so on, but he also discovers a tooth lodged in the wall. As he begins to adopt Simone’s habits and preferences, the issue becomes whether is he naturally assuming this role or are others trying to transform him? The film raises a recurrent Polanski question, voiced explicitly in this case, of how an individual stops being who he thinks he is. The loss of identity or, similarly, the splitting of one into dual personalities, has been with Polanski since Repulsion.

Looking back, Polanski felt Trelkovsky’s insanity comes about too quickly, but the subjectivity leaves it speculative as to whether all these incidents actually happened or were in Trelkovsky’s head to begin with. A chaotic, intense conclusion also recalls Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Indeed, the three could be considered a triptych of sorts, dealing with apartments and their inhabitants, breakdowns, horror (real or imagined) and oppressive confines.(11) From unadapted novel to first public screening in eight months, this was Polanski’s fastest produced feature, and it remains a film better than his own evaluation as a “flawed but interesting experiment.”(12)

In 1976, a deal was struck with Columbia for Polanski to adapt and direct Lawrence Sander’s police procedural The First Deadly Sin, but this project, like Day of the Dolphin, had to be scrapped due to upheaval and scandal. This time, the disruption was of Polanski’s own doing. As summarised by James Greenberg, Polanski, “agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, fulfilled about half of a ninety-day court order for psychiatric evaluation and expected to be released on probation.”(13) Subsequently, Columbia swiftly dropped the development of The First Deadly Sin, though Dino De Laurentiis admirably came to Polanski with a proposed remake of John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937). Following more ensuing drama, that project likewise went by the wayside. When the “judge reneged on the bargain-plea that was accepted by all sides,” according to Polanski,(14) and with additional, indeterminate prison time possible, Polanski left for Europe and has not retuned to the United States since.

Tess

Tess

For his first film as an exile, Polanski chose a sweeping adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Filmed in France, where he would not face extradition to America, Tess (1979) had a $12 million budget, the largest ever for a French motion picture to that point, with the radiant 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski in the title role. Polanski’s penchant for lurking danger is conveyed in sequences of unspoken, latent threats toward Tess, which disconcertingly contrast with the lushness of the settings. The camera remains outside, objective; Tess observes as much as she interacts. Locales frequently shift and Polanski carefully composes static tableaux of detached yet evocative beauty. Though his films are notable for their interior settings, Tess is at its sumptuous best in the exteriors, with dusk-tinged luminosity highlighting the first half of the picture and bucolic mud and muck inflecting the latter half.

After undergoing a rigorous post-production process (versions were mixed in English, German, and French, and editing stalwart Sam O’Steen trimmed 36 minutes of footage), Polanski’s final cut of Tess opened to rave reviews. The film received four Academy Awards, including one for best cinematography, which was shared by Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth, the latter posthumously after he passed away during filming.

Having first started work on the Pirates script in 1974, the time finally came for Polanski to embark on what is an adventure film, pure and simple. Nothing about the actual production, however, was quite so uncomplicated. It was, according to Polanski, “torture, a real nightmare,”(15) and weather related delays resulted in an ultimate loss of $35 million.

Original starring choice Jack Nicholson was now well beyond the budget of the film, so Polanski attained the 64-year-old Walter Matthau in the peg-legged lead. While Pirates (1986) lacks much of what marks Polanski’s best films in style and content, it does continue a career-long fascination with the balance of power, with master/slave allusions to The Fat and the Lean andVampire Killers. Some of the fumbling, bumbling foolishness falls flat, but the most disappointing feature of the film is the relative lack of energetic cinematic action. The picture looks great, with vibrant cinematography, and there are plenty of action sequences, but Polanski’s standard style is not well suited to all the commotion. Yet Pirates is in many ways just what he intended: “something of a parody of the genre.”(16)

After time away from home and dealing with the debacle that was Pirates, Polanski set his sights more locally and more commercially. Frantic (1988), a Paris-set Hitchcockian stranger-in-a-strange-land thriller, has the hapless Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) in pursuit of his suddenly missing wife. It is, especially compared to Pirates, a more prototypical Polanski feature. Walker isn’t super rich, he has no political ties, he doesn’t speak French, and he expresses no exceptional strength or cunning. He is just a man in over his head, caught in a plot of espionage and deception, all hinging on a classically ambiguous MacGuffin. While Walker and sidekick Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s third and current wife) make their way through multiple locations, and a more mobile camera is utilised than is typical for Polanski, Frantic is nonetheless most compelling in its localised frustration and personal anxiety, as Polanski builds a taut pressure by keeping his focus tightly on Ford.

In 1989, Polanski travelled to Moscow to scout locations for an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (“the one I was born to direct [17]) but the prospective film’s lack of commercial appeal and potential cost gave Warner Brothers cold feet. So Polanski began adapting Lunes de fiel, by Pascal Bruckner.

Bitter Moon

Bitter Moon

With a flashback structure unique for Polanski, Bitter Moon (1992), a “one-stop anthology of classic Polanskian themes,”(18) sets the present day sequences aboard a cruise ship and the past in Paris. In both arenas, cruelty and sexual tension cause fractures in the complacency of those involved, revealing underlying animosity, which in turn leads to continual bouts of one-upmanship, sadistic duels, and combustible humiliation. In classic Polanski style, the drama first unfolds as a result of a chance encounter with a stranger, who provides the initiation into uncharted waters for Nigel and Fiona (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas), the naive newlyweds who become involved in a psychosexual game beyond their range of knowledge, comfort, and experience. The wheelchair-bound Oscar (Peter Coyote) warns Nigel that his own wife, Mimi (Seigner), whom Nigel has had his eyes on since their first meeting, is a “walking man trap.” In the flashbacks, the two hole away in the rapturous seclusion of their apartment, where progressively exposed violence grows from unbridled sexuality, comingling in a way that reflects the intertwining of passion and danger that exists in the present, as Nigel struggles with his own temptations.

When playwright Ariel Dorfman selected Polanski to take on his hit 1991 play, the choice was similarly appropriate. Death and the Maiden (1994) seems tailor-made for the director. With a more than $11 million budget, this essentially one-room chamber drama cost about as much as Tess, but, as Greenberg point out, the work offered Polanski “his trademark claustrophobia—in spades.”(19).

Though Death gets its narrative motivation from historical mayhem in an unnamed Latin American country, the film is more concerned with personal drama than political ramifications. The intimate story of Paulina Escobar’s recovery from rape and torture at the hands of a fascist soldier is of more concern than any inherent political statement. Paulina (Weaver) is remote and cagey, her traumatic past at odds with, yet strongly connected to, her husband’s judicial line of work. When a stranger arrives at their isolated home, her paranoia seems to be well founded. The man is apparently her former torturer. As with Knife, the presence of the third party only aggravates pre-existing marital tension, and one questions Paulina’s sanity as she brutally interrogates the man, wondering about her righteous revenge and crazed suspicion. She is obviously scarred, but is there a chance the trauma has clouded her judgment and perception? Death is the ultimate Polanski power play, with a constant jockeying between positions of command and intimidation, between the weak and the strong.

The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate

When a collaboration with John Travolta dramatically fell through just prior to shooting, after the actor claimed the final screenplay was not the same as what he had initially been shown, Polanski teamed with another major star, Johnny Depp, on a new project. In The Ninth Gate (1999), Dean Corso’s profession as a “book detective” leads to his involvement in a world out of his hands and beyond his normal endeavours. He starts to wonder who is in charge, who is pulling the strings that have entwined him. “Someone’s playing a game with me,” he says in a line that could be taken from nearly every Polanski film. Similar warning such as, “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into…” are also echoed from earlier works. This is classic entertaining, escapist Polanski, his technical perfection and keen aesthetic approach revelling in generic design and tone.

Many saw the film as yet another Polanski exploration of the demonic, and were quick to tack on autobiographical significance, which the director was equally quick to shut down. “I’m not interested at all in witchcraft and the occult as a philosophy. To an atheist like myself it’s exotic. The devil makes me laugh.”(20) Not everyone was laughing though, and the film’s critical reception was not what Polanski had in mind. “I wanted the film to be more of a comedy… But it seems like nobody really got it.” (21) The Ninth Gate was not released until more than a year after its completion, but once it was it achieved a nearly $58 million return – a rare financial gain for a recent Polanski feature.

Having passed on Schindler’s List (1993) due to its disquietingly familiar Krakow setting, Polanski next embarked on arguably his most personal film, tackling Wladyslaw Szpilman’s Warsaw-based memoirs originally published as Death of a City in 1946. Though not a thriller in its strictest sense, The Pianist (2002) allowed for Polanski’s continued thematic interests, particularly concerning confinement. As Greenberg argues, “What could be more claustrophobic – physically and psychologically – than living within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding in tiny rooms locked from the outside?”(22) Like so many Polanski protagonists, Szpilman (Adrien Brody) unwittingly finds himself entangled in the ultimate plot, a scheme most devastating, leading to an incomparable tension. He hides wherever possible, seeking a safe, secluded enclosure that results in his living in a true state of paranoia and terror. Polanski takes frightening wartime concerns on a macro scale and condenses them to the emotional tale of one man’s survival. Yet while Szpilman is the point of focus throughout, Polanski favours a largely restrained objectivity, a reluctance to sentimentalise or melodramatically manipulate being part of what drew him to the original text.

Polanski was widely – and justly – heralded for The Pianist. He and the film received a multitude of international awards: a BAFTA for best picture and director, César awards for best film and director, the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Oscar wins for Brody and Polanski. The Pianist still stands as the film he considers his finest achievement.

Riding this wave of praise (if not box office success), Polanski chose an adaptation of Oliver Twist (2005) as his next feature. Shot on a nearly $60 million budget – Polanski’s largest ever – this time he sought to deliberately make something for his children. But he would not do so without figuring in inevitable familiar tropes. Young Oliver is subjected to both the cruelty and kindness of strangers. He lives in a world where authority and regimentation are frequently confronted by disorder. His helplessness is beyond his control and he seems destined to be something of a solitary roamer. The plight of young Oliver and his well-being is suspenseful, rife with danger and volatile personalities. If this is Polanski’s children’s movie, it is a portentous one indeed.

After initially showing interest in Robert Harris’ Pompeii as his follow-up, Polanski was given the proofs of the author’s The Ghost as a gift. He quickly shifted his interest to the newer work. Ewan McGregor’s unnamed ghostwriter is an individual whose occupation proves to be integral to his eventual involvement in an ongoing drama, not unlike Gittes or Corso. In this post-9/11 world, however, there is also discussion about torture, the war on terror, and a new sense of global political stratagem, with obscured figures as guiding forces behind world leaders. All this gives The Ghost Writer (2010) an international relevance, with secrets and things unsaid, the full ramifications of which are likewise veiled.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer is another example of a character consciously creating two personalities in Polanski’s work. In this case, the former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) crafts a public persona that belies his private anxieties and actions. Meanwhile, The Ghost struggles with a conflict of conscience, where the tension brought on by gestating matrimonial troubles and potentially murderous deception tests his own moral culpability. Against the wider panorama of global politics, Polanski again hones in his narrative and visual focus. The action remains relatively isolated on Martha’s Vineyard and within that, in the confines of Lang’s secluded home. There is also the importance of a singular object, this time, as in The Ninth Gate, a manuscript that becomes something of a character in itself.

During post-production, Polanski was arrested in Zurich on the 1977 unlawful sexual intercourse charges. While incarcerated, he had longtime editor Herve de Luze send him the latest versions of the film on disc, which he would then watch on his laptop and make notes. He was eventually able to have de Luze visit him in prison and obtained full editing equipment, finishing the cutting while still incarcerated. After posting bail, he was placed under house arrest for nine months and was eventually freed.

Polanski’s two most recent films are further examples of his evolving yet consistent preoccupation with the tumult that develops when people find themselves in an isolated or enclosed space, something with which he has now had his fair share of experience. Though we see the instigating drama in the opening credits, Carnage (2011), adapted from Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, begins when this initial action is already over. The concerned parties – the parents of two children involved in a fight – have more or less reached an agreement and one couple is about to leave. But through the course of the 80 minutes that follow, marital wounds are (re)exposed, with each of the four characters at various points taking sides and swapping allegiances. Antagonism is born from subtle words and phrasing, and wild insinuations. It’s not always clear if the aggression is based on purposeful hostility or innocuous and accidental interpretations, but the polite manners of this upper class foursome are quickly and comically brushed aside as trivialities cause frustration and anger, and everyone takes passing blame.

Carnage

Carnage

With relatively little space to operate in, Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman (his DP since The Pianist) make the most of the anamorphic frame, employing a variety of camera angles, alternating shot sizes and distance. Wider shots balance all four characters while close-ups stress the change in moods and reactions via both subtle and intense facial expressions. “I’ve made films before set in an enclosed space,” Polanski noted, “but not as rigorously self-contained.”(23) As Denic Meikle writes concerning Death and the Maiden in a comment equally applicable here, the audience is forced to witness the at times hilarious “peeling away of the layers of civilized behaviour to reveal the raw emotions, and the real nature of the relationships which lie beneath.”(24) A Roman Polanski film in a nutshell.

After completing the short film A Therapy in 2012, Polanski’s most recent work was again set in a single location, this time with just two characters pursuing that ever elusive and perpetually necessary throne of supremacy. David Ives’ Venus in Fur is another project that seems as if only Polanski could have brought it to the screen. The work is a battle for creative control and a simultaneously sexually charged contest of manipulation. With Seigner as Vanda, the seductive aspiring actress, and Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, the conflicted director, Venus in Fur (2013) shows once and for all that, as Christopher Sandford puts it, “claustrophobia is to Polanski as the frontier is to John Ford.”(25)

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur

While most obviously known as a feature film director, Polanski has embarked on a number of other creative projects. His acting turns have been in movies as wide ranging as Giuseppe Tornatore’s A Pure Formality (1994) and Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour 3 (2007). In 2002, he reunited with Wajda to star in The Revenge. Script work for films he would not direct include A Taste for Women (1964), The Girl Opposite (1965), The Girl Across the Way (1968) and A Day at the Beach (1972). Several more aborted writing collaborations spot his career. Other seemingly incongruous projects include producing the 1972 Grand Prix racing documentary, Weekend of a Champion, and an on-again-off-again attempt at an erotic animated film.

He has also embarked on his fair share of theatre work, directing Lulu in Spoleto, Rigoletto in Munich, directing and staring in Amadeus, playing Gregor Samsa in a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and directing John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, among others. At one point, there was even discussion regarding a musical adaptation of Fearless Vampire Killers in Vienna. “Theatre,” Polanski stated, “is like therapy after making a movie.”(26)

Regularly reluctant to analyse his own work – “I don’t know about that, I’m just the filmmaker”(27) – Polanski remains evasive about his films and their autobiographical significance, despite the fact that so much of his work seems so apropos to his life and worldview. On the other hand, he has not shied away from discussing his craft in general. “Filmmaking is about translating the ideas in your head to life,” he explains. “In this respect, it’s the work of only one person – a one-man art form – because I’m the only person who knows what’s going inside my head.”(28) He wants to make the kinds of films, he says, “where you feel the walls around you,”(29) and he is, “rather more interested in the behaviour of people under stress, when they are no longer in comfortable, everyday situations where they can afford to respect the conventional rules and morals of society.”(30) Interestingly, Polanski is also one of the first modern filmmakers to consider cinema as an absorptive medium, saying in 1966 that he would make “scented” films if he could,(31) and tinkering with 3D tests as early as 1971, many decades before the contemporary rival of interest in the format.

Still, Polanski remains something of an enigma. He is “too commercial to be avant-garde and too avant-garde to be commercial,” according to James Morrison (32), who also contends the director operates in a “post-generic” form of cinema (33), where “the comedy is sometimes excruciating, while the melodrama is often funny.”(34) In response to observations regarding his treading of varying generic grounds, Polanski argues that he likes film too much to be happy doing only one thing: “Genre is what cinema is all about,” he says.(35) “If I am eclectic it’s because of my love for cinema.”(36)

As of early 2015, Polanski is working on a film about the Alfred Dreyfus scandal of the late 1890s. Noting the suitability of such a topic in these modern times (as well as, presumably, in his body of work), he observes that the story involves the “age-old spectacle of the witch-hunt of a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press.”(37) This would certainly seem to coincide exceptionally well with what has come to define a Roman Polanski film. As Meikle puts it, from his film school days through his award-winning feature filmmaking career, Polanski’s films “exhibit an originality of vision, both stylistically and thematically. Whether they are dark and morbid and psychotically-disposed, or merely frivolous and disposable, they are plainly the work of a singular intelligence, a unique psychology, a rare aesthetic.” (38)

Endnotes

1. Roman Polanski, Roman by Polanski (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), p. 207.

2. Ibid., p. 213.

3. Paul Cronin (ed.), Roman Polanski: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 122.

4. Ibid., p. 13.

5. Denis Meikle , Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2006), p. 139.

6. David Ehrenstein, Roman Polanski: Masters of Cinema (Paris: Cahiers du cinema Sarl, 2012) p. 31.

7. Christopher Sandford, Polanski: A Biography (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 166.

8. James Greenberg, Roman Polanski: A Retrospective (New York: Abrams, 2013), p. 110.

9. Cronin, p. 160.

10. Ibid., p. 61.

11. Meikle, p. 218.

12. Polanski, p. 351.

13. Greenberg, p. 11.

14. Cronin, p. 191.

15. Ibid., p. 118.

16. Ibid., p. 117.

17. Sandford, p. 303.

18. Ibid., p. 310.

19. Greenberg, p. 187.

20. Ibid., p. 198.

21. Ibid., p. 205.

22. Ibid., p. 208.

23. Ibid., p. 255.

24. Meikle, p. 278.

25. Sandford, p. 208.

26. Cronin, p. 169.

27. Ibid., p. 33.

28. Ibid., p. 113.

29. Greenberg, p. 14.

30. James Morrison, Roman Polanski: Contemporary Film Directors (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 162.

31. Cronin, p. 10.

32. Morrison, p. 102.

33. Ibid., p. 25.

34. Ibid., p. 22.

35. Cronin, p. 124.

36. Ibid., p. 121.

37. Ehrenstein, p. 94.

38. Meikle, pp. 265–6.

Filmography

Rower (1955) (short) also writer
Murder (1957) (short) also writer
Teeth Smile (1957) (short) also writer
Break Up the Dance (1957) (short) also writer
Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) (short) also writer
The Lamp (1959) (short) also writer
When Angels Fall (1959) (short) also writer
The Fat and the Lean (1961) (short) also writer and producer
Mammals (1962) (short) also writer
Knife in the Water (1962) also writer
The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (segment “La Rivière de Diamants”) (1964) also writer
Repulsion (1965) also writer
Cul-De-Sac (1966) also writer
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) also writer
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) also writer
Macbeth (1971) also writer
Weekend of a Champion (documentary) (1972) also uncredited writer and producer
What? (1972) also writer
Chinatown (1974) also uncredited writer
The Tenant (1976) also writer
Tess (1979) also writer
Pirates (1986) also writer
Frantic (1988) also writer
Bitter Moon (1992) also writer and producer
The King of Ads (1993) (documentary)
Death and the Maiden (1994)
The Ninth Gate (1999) also writer and producer
The Pianist (2002) also producer
Oliver Twist (2005) also producer
To Each His Own Cinema (segment “Cinéma Erotique”) (2007) also producer
GREED, a New Fragrance by Francesco Vezzoli (short) (2009)
The Ghost Writer (2010) also writer and producer
Carnage (2011) also writer
A Therapy (short) (2012) also writer
Venus in Fur (2013) also writer

Select Bibliography

Bird, Daniel, Roman Polanski. Great Britain: Pocket Essentials Film, 2002.

Cronin, Paul, ed., Roman Polanski: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Ehrenstein, David, Roman Polanski: Masters of Cinema. Paris: Cahiers du cinema Sarl, 2012.

Feeney, F.X., Roman Polanski. Koln: Taschen, 2006.

Greenberg, James, Roman Polanski: A Retrospective. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Meikle, Denis, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2006.

Morrison, James, Roman Polanski: Contemporary Film Directors. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Polanski, Roman, Roman by Polanski. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.

Sandford, Christopher, Polanski: A Biography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

The Psychology of Seeing and the Cinema of Roman Polanski by Davide Caputo (book review) by Tessa Chudy

Polanski in Motion: Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller by Ewa Mazierska (book review) by Michael Goddard

Painterly Moments in Roman Polanski’s Tess by Arthur Rankin

Andrzej and Krystyna go Boating: Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water by Matthew Clayfield

The Atheist’s Shoah – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist by Christos Tsiolkas

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a
visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular
Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.