Roman Polanski has always spoken out against attempts to draw too close a connection between his life and work, maybe because there is hardly any other director for whom that link seems so likely. The pessimistic view of the world in many of his films, the harrowing atrocities therein, the sense of the absurdity of human existence: all of that falls too well in line with a biography decisively shaped by experiences of wanton violence.
Born in 1933, Polanski is a survivor. He barely escaped Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto in 1943. He spent the last war years in hiding with a Catholic family. His parents were hauled off to concentration camps; his mother was murdered in Auschwitz. Shortly after the war, as a 15-year-old, he suffered a severe head injury at the hands of a teenage serial killer. Again, it was only by a hair’s breadth that Polanski got away alive. In August 1969, a few days before his 36th birthday, Charles Manson’s gang bestially murdered his highly pregnant wife Sharon Tate in Los Angeles. Polanski had been traveling in Europe at the time.
The first film he shot after this most severe blow of fate was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s MACBETH (1971) that was drenched in blood. However, he did not want this film to be seen as a cathartic device to overcome his trauma, as he was, in fact, more interested in the challenge of bringing Shakespeare to the screen. As a director, Polanski may have been shaped by a period of »New Waves« in Eastern und Western Europe that put the film auteur front and center, one who drew on his or her own life for artistic creations – still, Polanski is just as much a craftsman in the classic sense, one who always tries to get the best out of a given task.
Roman Polanski is a brilliant master who impresses those who work with him with his encyclopedic knowledge of filmmaking; a perfectionist who likes to shoot long, uninterrupted takes, which are challenging for everyone on set; a universalist who has tried his hand in almost all the genres: from period drama, to psychological horror, to slapstick comedy.
The fact that Polanski is as much an artist as he is an artisan may well also be the reason why he is one in a very small group of directors whose work is held in high esteem in both Europe and America. Few other filmmakers of the past and present have been given more renowned awards on both continents: he received a Golden Bear for CUL-DE-SAC in Berlin in 1966, won a lifetime achievement Golden Lion in Venice in 1993, and a Golden Palm in Cannes for THE PIANIST in 2002; in the USA, he was awarded a Golden Globe for CHINATOWN in 1974, and won an Oscar for THE PIANIST in 2003, following four previous nominations.
From early on, it was apparent that Polanski was to make his own way as a filmmaker. A number of short films he made as a student at the renowned Lodz Film School immediately garnered international acclaim. His first full-length feature, KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), was something of a sensation in his native country, Poland. The film was notable for two altogether different aspects: first, Polanski picked a sailboat as his set, which would have posed a challenge even for far more experienced directors; moreover, his film was also a political offense, precisely because it was largely unpolitical. The communist censors did not like KNIFE IN THE WATER, because the subtle thriller lacked a message that was suitably supportive of the state.
The success of his debut feature enabled Polanski to make the leap to the West. He shot REPULSION (1965) in London with young Cathérine Deneuve. This film, too, is mostly bound to the narrow confines of one location: a small apartment in London, where Deneuve’s character, a beauty specialist, is slowly drifting off into madness. His first film shot in the USA, ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), immediately became a great success with both the audience and critics. In this case, it is Mia Farrow who is in danger of losing her mind in a creepy apartment – this time, though, for good reason. Polanski’s greatest triumph during his time in the United States was the neo noir CHINATOWN (1974). He turned a masterpiece into a classic by replacing the happy ending in the script with a bleak conclusion.
The director fled the USA in 1978, since he was threatened with a jail term due to his affair with model Samantha Gailey, who was a minor at the time. The details of the case remain as yet unclear. After the documentary, ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, raised serious charges last year against the original judge in the case, Polanski made a motion for new trial – but to no avail. Samantha Gailey herself had already publicly forgiven him in 1997.
Lone individuals left at the hands of evil powers remain a major theme in Polanski’s work after his return to Europe in the late 1970s. His book adaptations, TESS (1979), THE PIANIST (2002), and OLIVER TWIST (2005), all revolve around innocent people who have to fend off discrimination by society and by institutions. For THE PIANIST, Polanski, who was living in France by then, returned to Poland for the first time in 40 years for a film shooting. THE PIANIST, which is probably his most personal film, was created based on the memoirs of the Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a lucky survivor of Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
After OLIVER TWIST, Polanski was supposed to direct the monumental film epic, POMPEJI – it would have been his biggest project to date. However, preparations were halted at the end of 2007, in part due to problems with the film locations and the screenplay. Polanski is currently working in the editing room on his 18th feature film, GHOST, an adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name by Robert Harris (FATHERLAND). In this picture, Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who puts himself in mortal danger when he accepts the job of writing the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. Now in his mid-seventies, Roman Polanski thus takes on a new genre once again: the political thriller. GHOST is scheduled for cinematic release in Germany in February 2010.