A Roman Polanski retrospective: Tragedy, Genius, Success

Most occupations don’t hold the work of an admitted statutory rapist as their highest standard of excellence. But in the wacky world of filmmaking, there’s a certain Roman Polanski, a guy whose life story resembles a head-on collision between Shakespearean tragedy and a Hitchcock thriller.

Born in France and after making a series of short films, Polanski released his first feature, Knife in the Water, in 1962. He soon moved to America, where he gained critical acclaim for mysteries like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, two regulars on all-time top 100 lists. In 1969, while Polanski was away on business, his wife and several friends were murdered in his house by Charles Manson’s gang. His wife, actress Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls), was eight months pregnant with their first child.

Six years later, Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Before his sentencing, Polanski fled the country, finding refuge in Europe. As long as he didn’t come back to America, he could not be sent to prison. The ’80s and ’90s brought a few more Polanski films, but none as memorable as his early work. The judge from his original case died in the ’80s, but a warrant is still out for his arrest in the U.S.

In 2002, Polanski’s latest film, The Pianist, won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, considered by many to be the highest honor in all of filmmaking. It was released in the U.S. in December, and has received seven Oscar nominations, among them Best Picture, Best
Director and Best Actor. This is Polanski’s first nomination in almost 25 years, but barring some major turn of events, he won’t be attending the March 23 ceremony. However, Samantha Geimer, his sex victim, recently announced in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed article that she doesn’t hold grudges against him and believes he should be judged on his filmmaking and not on a past event in his life.

His career has been as unpredictable as one of his movies. His first, the Polish film Knife in the Water, was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign category, as well as winning a Venice Film Festival award, but the film is painfully boring by today’s standards, featuring a cast of three, one main setting and zero interesting events-starting with a husband and wife who stop to pick up a hitchhiker, and then inexplicably take him on their private boating trip and…nothing happens.

If Knife in the Water has a theme, it’s a theme of nothingness. The three characters talk and perform menial chores on the boat, but nothing interesting ever occurs. Despite what goateed, cigar-chomping film critics think, Polanski’s first film is a failure. He proves nothing more than that he can point a camera at people and have them say dumb things.

Polanski’s first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, is exactly the opposite of Knife in the Water. Every scene drips with spooky scenery and foreboding music. The acting from Mia Farrow (Alice) is perfect, and supporting performances from John Cassavetes (the director of Gloria) and a delightfully scary old couple add to the film’s charm.
Starring Farrow and Cassavetes as a young couple who move into a new apartment building, the film blends the horror and mystery genres, even branching off into sci-fi towards the end. It withstands the test of time surprisingly well, unlike many old thrillers that would be laughable to today’s audiences. It is every bit as scary and thrilling now as it was when it came out in 1972, and will likely maintain its spot among history’s scariest films for a long time.

Furthermore, the equally impressive Chinatown is a murder mystery in its purest form. Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a small-time L.A. private investigator who gets involved in some big-time conspiracies. Polanski’s direction and Nicholson’s acting are among the best ever, and the twisted side plots make the movie thrilling and entertaining, as well as unpredictable.

Unfortunately for Polanski, American audiences forgot about him soon after he left the country, and his seven movies between Chinatown and The Pianist, with the exception of Tess in 1979, went relatively unnoticed. Even when Polanski partnered with top American talent, like Harrison Ford in Frantic and Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate, American audiences ignored him.

In The Pianist, he admirably draws from his own experiences as a child to tell the story of a young Polish man (Liberty Heights’ Adrien Brody) during World War II. Brody’s character plays piano for a radio station before the station and his home are bombed by Nazis. While in line with his family to board a train for a concentration camp, a friend of his who works for the local police calls him aside with an offer that will save his life. Polanski orchestrates the war scenes perfectly, not overdoing it as most filmmakers do. He instead chooses to really focus on Brody’s character, who is given depth and personality by the up-and-coming actor. The main flaw here is that this film brings little new to the table. Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List already gave us grisly details of the Holocaust, and The Pianist does not have a unique enough angle to really make things interesting.

The Pianist may mark a turning point for Polanski however. His body of work is impressive, even if his decisions in life have not been respectable ones. At age 69, he shows no signs of slowing down, and his award nominations for The Pianist have once again landed his name in the American news, even if his face won’t be on the big screen at the ceremony.

Shawn Wines can be reached at shawnwines@aol.com