Polanski, Roman

views updated May 23 2018


Nationality: Polish. Born: Paris, 18 August 1933. Education: Krakow Liceum Sztuk Plastycznych (art school), 1950–53; State Film School, Lodz, 1954–59. Family: Married 1) actress Barbara Kwiatkowska, 1959 (divorced 1961); 2) actress Sharon Tate, 1968 (died 1969); 3) actress Emmanuelle Seigner, 1989. Career: Returned to Poland, 1936; actor on radio and in theatre, from 1945, and in films, from 1951; joined filmmaking group KAMERA as assistant to Andrzej Munk, 1959; directed first feature, Knife in the Water, 1962, denounced by Polish Communist Party chief Gomulka, funding for subsequent films denied, moved to Paris, 1963; moved to London, 1964, then to Los Angeles, 1968; wife Sharon Tate and three friends murdered in Bel Air, California, home by members of Charles Manson cult, 1969; opera director, from 1974; convicted by his own plea of unlawful sexual intercourse in California, 1977; committed to a diagnostic facility, Department of Correction; upon completion of study, returned to Paris; also stage actor and director. Awards: Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival, for Repulsion, 1965; Golden Bear, Berlin Festival, for Cul-de-Sac, 1966; César Award, for Tess, 1980. Address: Lives in Paris.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


Rower (The Bike) (short)


Morderstwo (The Crime) (short)


Rozbijemy zabawe (Break up the Dance) (short); Dwaj ludziez szasa (Two Men and a Wardrobe) (short) (+ role)


Gdy spadaja anioly (When Angels Fall) (short) (+ role as old woman)


Le Gros et le maigre (The Fat Man and the Thin Man) (short) (co-sc, + role as servant)


Ssaki (Mammals) (short) (co-sc, + role); Nóz w wodzie (Knifein the Water) (co-sc)


"La Rivière de diamants" ("A River of Diamonds") episode of Les Plus Belles Escroqueries du monde (The MostBeautiful Swindles in the World) (co-sc)


Repulsion (co-sc)


Cul-de-sac (co-sc)


The Fearless Vampire Killers (Pardon Me, but Your TeethAre in My Neck; Dance of the Vampires) (co-sc, + role as Alfred)


Rosemary's Baby


Macbeth (co-sc)


What? (Che?; Diary of Forbidden Dreams) (co-sc, + role as Mosquito)


Chinatown (d only, + role as man with knife)


Le Locataire (The Tenant) (co-sc, + role as Trelkovsky)


Tess (co-sc)


Pirates (co-sc)


Frantic (co-sc)


Bitter Moon (co-sc,pr)


Death and the Maiden


The Ninth Gate (co-sc, pr)


The Pianist (+ co-sc, pr)

Other Films:


Trzy opowiesci (Three Stories) (Nalecki, Poleska, Petelski) (role as Maly)


Pokolenie (A Generation) (Wajda) (role as Mundek)


Zaczárowany rower (The Enchanted Bicycle) (Sternfeld) (role as Adas)


Koniec wojny (End of the Night) (Dziedzina, Komorowski, Uszycka) (role as Maly)


Wraki (Wrecks) (Petelski) (role)


Zadzwoncie do mojej zony (Phone My Wife) (Mach) (role)


Lotna (Wajda) (role as bandsman)


Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerors) (Wajda) (role as Dudzio); Ostroznie yeti (The Abominable Snowman) (Czekalski) (role); Do Widzenia do Jutra (See You Tomorrow) (Morgenstern) (role as Romek); Zezowate szczescie (Bad Luck) (Munk) (role)


Do You Like Women? (Léon) (co-sc)


The Woman Opposite (Simon) (co-sc)


A Day at the Beach (Hessera) (pr); The Magic Christian (McGrath) (role)


Weekend of a Champion (Simon) (pr, role as interviewer)


Blood for Dracula (Morrissey) (role as a villager)


Back in the USSR (Serafian) (role as Kurilov)


Gross Fatigue (role as himself)


A Simple Formality (role as Inspector)


Ljuset häller mig sällskap (Light Keeps Me Company) (Nykvist) (role as himself); Hommage à Alfred Lepetit (Tribute toAlfred Lepetit) (Rousselot) (role)


By POLANSKI: books—

What?, New York, 1973.

Three Films, London, 1975.

Roman (autobiography), London, 1984.

Polanski par Polanski, edited by Pierre-André Boutang, Paris, 1986.

By POLANSKI: articles—

Interview with Gretchen Weinberg, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1963/64.

"Landscape of a Mind: Interview with Roman Polanski," with Michel Delahaye and Jean-André Fieschi, in Cahiers du Cinémain English (New York), February 1966.

Interview with Michel Delahaye and Jean Narboni, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), January 1968.

"Polanski in New York," an interview with Harrison Engle, in FilmComment (New York), Fall 1968.

Interview with Joel Reisner and Bruce Kane, in Cinema (Los Angeles), vol. 5, no. 2, 1969.

"Satisfaction: A Most Unpleasant Feeling," an interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), April 1969.

Interview, in The Film Director as Superstar, by Joseph Gelmis, Garden City, New York, 1970.

"Playboy Interview: Roman Polanski," with Larry DuBois, in Playboy (Chicago), December 1971.

"Andy Warhol Tapes Roman Polanski," in Inter/View (New York), November 1973.

"Dialogue on Film: Roman Polanski," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), August 1974.

"Roman Polanski on Acting," with D. Brandes, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1977.

"Tess," an interview with Serge Daney and others, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), December 1979.

Interview with P. Pawlikowski and L. Kolodziejczyk, in Stills (London), April/May 1984.

Interview with O. Darmon, in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1986.

"Roman Oratory," an interview with Andrea R. Vaucher, in American Film, April 1991.

"At the Point of No Return," an interview with Rider McDowell, in California, August 1991.

"Entretien avec Roman Polanski," with A. de Baecque and T. Jousse, in Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1992.

"Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon," an interview with Stephen O'Shea, in Interview, March 1994.

"From Knife to Death with Roman Polanski," an interview with Tomm Carroll, in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), December-January 1994–1995.

Interview with Catherine Axelrad and Laurent Vachaud, in Positif (Paris), April 1995.

"I Make Films for Adults: Death and the Maiden," an interview with David Thompson and Nick James, in Sight and Sound (London), April 1995.

"Death and the Maiden: Trial by Candlelight," an interview with Stephen Pizzello, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1995.

"Polanski: En studie I skräck (och hämnd)," an interview with Anneli Bojstad, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 37, no. 2, 1995.

"The Most Popular Illusionists in the World," in Interview, January 1996.

"Letters: [I Am Writing You This Letter?]," in Vanity Fair (New York), July 1997.

On POLANSKI: books—

Butler, Ivan, The Cinema of Roman Polanski, New York, 1970.

Kane, Pascal, Roman Polanski, Paris, 1970.

Belmans, Jacques, Roman Polanski, Paris, 1971.

Bisplinghoff, Gretchen, and Virginia Wexman, Roman Polanski:A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1979.

Kiernan, Thomas, The Roman Polanski Story, New York, 1980.

Leaming, Barbara, Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur: A Biography, New York, 1981; also published as Polanski: His Life andFilms, London, 1982.

Paul, David W., Politics, Art, and Commitment in the EasternEuropean Cinema, New York, 1983.

Dokumentation: Polanski und Skolimowski: Das absurde im film, Zurich, 1985.

Wexman, Virginia Wright, Roman Polanski, Boston, 1985.

Jacobsen, Wolfgang, and others, Roman Polanski, Munich, 1986.

Avron, Dominique, Roman Polanski, Paris, 1987.

McCarty, John, The Modern Horror Film, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1990.

Preljocaj, Angelin, Roman Polanski, Paris, 1992.

McCarty, John, Movie Psychos and Madmen, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1993.

McCarty, John, The Fearmakers, New York, 1994.

Goulding, Daniel J., ed., Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman,Polanski, Szabo, Makavejev, Bloomington, 1994.

On POLANSKI: articles—

Haudiquet, Philippe, "Roman Polanski," in Image et Son (Paris), February/March 1964.

Brach, Gérard, "Polanski via Brach," in Cinéma (Paris), no. 93, 1965.

McArthur, Colin, "Polanski," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1968.

McCarty, John, "The Polanski Puzzle," in Take One (Montreal), May/June 1969.

Tynan, Kenneth, "Polish Imposition," in Esquire (New York), September 1971.

"Le Bal des vampires," special Polanski issue of Avant-Scène duCinéma (Paris), January 1975.

Leach, J., "Notes on Polanski's Cinema of Cruelty," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 2, no. 1, 1978.

Kennedy, H., "Tess: Polanski in Hardy Country," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1979.

"L'Univers de Roman Polanski," special section, in Cinéma (Paris), February 1980.

Sinyard, Neil, "Roman Polanski," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), November/December 1981.

Polanski Section of Kino (Warsaw), July 1986.

Polanski Section of Positif (Paris), May 1988.

Sutton, M., "Polanski in Profile," in Films and Filming (London), September 1988.

Ansen, David, "The Man Who Got Away," in Newsweek, 28 March 1994.

Weschler, Lawrence, "Artist in Exile," in New Yorker, 5 December 1994.

Davis, Ivor, "Out of Exile?" in Los Angeles Magazine, January 1995.

Heilpern, John, "Roman's Tortured Holiday," in Vanity Fair, January 1995.

Aitio, Tommi, "Puolalainen Hollywoodissa," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 3, 1997.

Robinson, J., "Polanski's Inferno," in Vanity Fair (New York), April 1997.

Epstein, J., "Bertolucci Leads a Star-studded Panel on Cinematic Investigation," in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), August 1997.

Leitch, Thomas M., "The Hitchcock Moment," in Hitchcock Annual (Gambier), 1997–1998.

Fierz, Charles L., "Polanski Misses: Polanski's Reading of Hardy's Tess," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1999.

* * *

As a student at the Polish State Film School and later as a director working under government sponsorship, Roman Polanski learned to make films with few resources. Using only a few trained actors (there are but three characters in his first feature) and a hand-held camera (due to the unavailability of sophisticated equipment) Polanski managed to create several films which contributed to the international reputation of the burgeoning Polish cinema.

These same limitations contributed to the development of a visual style which was well suited to the director's perspective on modern life: one which emphasized the sort of precarious, unstable world suggested by a hand-held camera, and the sense of isolation or removal from a larger society which follows the use of only small groupings of characters. In fact, Polanski's work might be seen as an attempt to map out the precise relationship between the contemporary world's instability and tendency to violence and the individual's increasing inability to overcome his isolation and locate some realm of meaning or value beyond himself.

What makes this concern with the individual and his psyche especially remarkable is Polanski's cultural background. As a product of a socialist state and its official film school at Lodz, he was expected to use his filmmaking skills to advance the appropriate social consciousness and ideology sanctioned by the government. However, Polanski's first feature, Knife in the Water, drew the ire of the Communist Party and was denounced at the Party Congress in 1964 for showing the negative aspects of Polish life. Although less an ideological statement than an examination of the various ways in which individual desires and powers determine our lives, Knife in the Water and the response it received seem to have precipitated Polanski's subsequent development into a truly international filmmaker. In a career that has taken him to France, England, Italy, and the United States in search of opportunities to write, direct, and act, he has consistently shown more interest in holding up a mirror to the individual impulses, unconscious urges, and the personal psychoses of human life than in dissecting the different social and political forces he has observed.

The various landscapes and geographies of Polanski's films certainly seem designed to enhance this focus, for they pointedly remove his characters from most of the normal structures of social life as well as from other people. The boat at sea in Knife in the Water, the oppressive flat and adjoining convent in Repulsion, the isolated castle and flooded causeway of Cul-de-sac, the prison-like apartments of Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, and the empty fields and deserted manor house in Tess form a geography of isolation that is often symbolically transformed into a geography of the mind, haunted by doubts, fears, desires, or even madness. The very titles of films like Cul-de-sac and Chinatown are especially telling in this regard, for they point to the essential strangeness and isolation of Polanski's locales, as well as to the sense of alienation and entrapment which consequently afflicts his characters. Brought to such strange and oppressive environments by the conditions of their culture (Chinatown), their own misunderstood urges (Repulsion), or some inexplicable fate (Macbeth), Polanski's protagonists struggle to make the unnatural seem natural, to turn entrapment into an abode, although the result is typically tragic, as in the case of Macbeth, or absurd, as in Cul-de-sac. Such situations have prompted numerous comparisons, especially of Polanski's early films, to the absurdist dramas of Samuel Beckett. As in many of Beckett's plays, language and its inadequacy play a significant role in Polanski's works, usually forming a commentary on the absence or failure of communication in modern society. The dramatic use of silence in Knife in the Water actually "speaks" more eloquently than much of the film's dialogue of the tensions and desires which drive its characters and operate just beneath the personalities they try to project. In the conversational clichés and banality which mark much of the dialogue in Cul-de-sac, we can discern how language often serves to cloak rather than communicate meaning. The problem, as the director most clearly shows in Chinatown, is that language often simply proves inadequate for capturing and conveying the complex and enigmatic nature of the human situation. Detective Jake Gittes's consternation when Evelyn Mulwray tries to explain that the girl he has been seeking is both her daughter and her sister—the result of an incestuous affair with her father—points out this linguistic inadequacy for communicating the most discomfiting truths. It is a point driven home at the film's end when, after Mrs. Mulwray is killed, Gittes is advised not to try to "say anything." His inability to articulate the horrors he has witnessed ultimately translates into the symptomatic lapse into silence also exhibited by the protagonists of The Tenant and Tess, as they find themselves increasingly bewildered by the powerful driving forces of their own psyches and the worlds they inhabit.

Prompting this tendency to silence, and often cloaked by a proclivity for a banal language, is a disturbing force of violence which all of Polanski's films seek to analyze—and for which they have frequently been criticized. Certainly, his own life has brought him all too close to this most disturbing impulse, for when he was only eight years old Polanski and his parents were interned in a German concentration camp where his mother died. In 1969 his wife Sharon Tate and several friends were brutally murdered by Charles Manson's followers. The cataclysmic violence in the decidedly bloody adaptation of Macbeth, which closely followed his wife's death, can be traced through all of the director's features, as Polanski has repeatedly tried to depict the various ways in which violence erupts from the human personality, and to confront in this specter the problem of evil in the world.

The basic event of Rosemary's Baby—Rosemary's bearing the offspring of the devil, a baby whom she fears yet, because of the natural love of a mother for her own child, nurtures—might be seen as a paradigm of Polanski's vision of evil and its operation in our world. Typically, it is the innocent or unsuspecting individual, even one with the best of intentions, who unwittingly gives birth to and spreads the very evil or violence he most fears. The protagonist of The Fearless Vampire Killers, for example, sets about destroying the local vampire and saving his beloved from its unnatural hold. In the process, however, he himself becomes a vampire's prey and, as a concluding voice-over solemnly intones, assists in spreading this curse throughout the world.

It is a somber conclusion for a comedy, but a telling indication of the complex tone and perspective which mark Polanski's films. He is able to assume an ironic, even highly comic attitude towards the ultimate and, as he sees it, inevitable human problem—an abiding violence and evil nurtured even as we individually struggle against these forces. The absurdist stance of Polanski's short films, especially Two Men and a Wardrobe and The Fat and the Lean, represents one logical response to this paradox. That his narratives have grown richer, more complicated, and also more discomfiting in their examination of this situation attests to Polanski's ultimate commitment to understanding the human predicament and to rendering articulate that which seems to defy articulation. From his own isolated position—as a man effectively without a country—Polanski tries to confront the problems of isolation, violence, and evil, and to speak of them for an audience prone to their sway.

After a highly publicized 1977 sex scandal resulted in his flight from the United States and subsequent exile, Polanski surprised many by doing an apparent about face in terms of subject matter, and creating one of his most restrained and visually beautiful films: the aforementioned Tess. It was based on the classic Thomas Hardy novel of innocence destroyed, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Polanski dedicated the movie to the memory of his murdered wife, Sharon Tate. Tess was followed by Pirates, a parody of the swashbuckling adventure films starring Errol Flynn that Polanski had enjoyed as a youth. Walter Matthau starred in the film as the comically villainous Captain Red, a role Polanski had written for Jack Nicholson. When Pirates failed at the box-office, Polanski returned to the cinema of fear with Frantic, a Hitchcock-style thriller with a Polanski touch, starring Harrison Ford. The story of a man inadvertently trapped in a nightmare situation in a foreign land, Frantic drew upon many of Polanski's favorite themes. But as a bid for critical and commercial success, it failed to repeat the performance of his earlier fear-films. The master of psychological suspense was not to be counted out yet, though. In 1992, Polanski bounced back with the film his fans had been clamoring for for years—a potent and powerful synthesis of all the absurdist comedies, parodies, thrillers, fear-films, and detective yarns Polanski had made in the past: Bitter Moon. He followed it up with the taut and well-reviewed but only modestly successful Death and the Maiden. 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. Could it be that his nightmarish films serve much the same purpose? Perhaps they too are the continuing efforts of a terrified young Jewish boy, adrift in a war-torn land, to connect with the rest of humanity—even after all these years.

—J. P. Telotte, updated by John McCarty

Roman Polanski

views updated May 29 2018

Roman Polanski

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.

Holocaust Survivor

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 throughWorld 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.

Permanent Exile

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.


Sarris, Andrew, The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, Visible Ink Press, 1998.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A.Knopf, 1994.


Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, October 21, 2002.

Daily Variety, May 30, 2002; December 19, 2002.

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Washington Times, March 11, 2000; January 3, 2003.


"Roman Polanski," All Movie Guide,http://www.allmovie.com (February 7, 2003). □

Polanski, Roman

views updated May 23 2018


POLANSKI, ROMAN (Liebling ; 1933– ), film director, writer, and actor. Born in Paris, Polanski went to Poland with his parents at the age of three. During World War ii, he managed to escape the ghetto, while his parents were sent to a concentration camp, where his mother died. As a young boy he survived in the Polish countryside, living with various Catholic families. In 1945 he was reunited with his father.

In the 1950s, still in Poland, he took up acting and also became a well-known filmmaker. He moved to Paris and made two films in England – Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966) – which won him international acclaim. Polanski also won several international awards for his film Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Among his other films are Mammals (1961); Knife in the Water (Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, 1962); and Rosemary's Baby (Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, 1968), which showed his mastery of suspense and the macabre, as well as The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), starring his wife, Sharon Tate.

In 1968 Polanski had gone to Hollywood – until 1969, when the circumstances of his life took on the nightmarish quality of his films. While Polanski was out of town his wife, who was eight months pregnant with their first child, as well as four of their friends, were brutally murdered at a party at their home by the Charles Manson gang. Polanski returned to Europe and continued to make films there, such as Macbeth (1971) and What? (1973). In 1974 he returned to the U.S. and made Chinatown (Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Best Director, 1974) and The Tenant (1976).

However, in 1977 he fled the country again, this time to avoid being incarcerated on a charge of statutory rape after having been involved in a sex scandal with a 13-year-old model. Living in Paris, Polanski continued to make films, such as Tess (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1979), Pirates (1986), Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992), Death and the Maiden (1994), The Ninth Gate (1999), and The Pianist (Oscar for Best Director, 2002).

He also acted, most notably in The Fearless Vampire Killers; What?; Chinatown; The Tenant; the French film A Pure Formality (1994); and the Polish film The Revenge (2002).

His autobiographical Roman by Polanski was published in 1984.

add. bibliography:

J. Parker, Polanski (1993); V. Wexman, Roman Polanski (1985); B. Leaming, Polanski, a Biography: The Film-maker as Voyeur (1981); T. Kiernan, Repulsion: The Life and Times of Roman Polanski (1980); I. Butler, The Cinema of Roman Polanski (1970).

[Jonathan Licht /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

Polanski, Roman

views updated May 09 2018

Polanski, Roman (1933– ) Polish director and actor. He established his reputation with the short film Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). His first full-length film, Knife in the Water (1962), was followed by Repulsion (1965) and Cul de-Sac (1966). Later films include Rosemary's Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), Chinatown (1974), and The Tenant (1976). He also achieved major successes with Tess (1980), Bitter Moon (1992), and Death and the Maiden (1994).