Sometimes it can feel like there are two Roman Polanskis. The first is a highly accomplished, award winning and sensitive film maker, the other is a rapist and fugitive from justice. The truth is always more complex. Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir gives us a glimpse at the man’s life with all its contradictions.
Firstly, to give a little perspective, this film is not a memoir in the usual sense of simply being a collection of the author’s memories. Of course it is not a book, but more than that, this memoir takes the form of an interview – or chat – with film producer and personal friend of the director, Andrew Braunsberg. So, what we get are memories as prompted by a friend and then edited by the director Laurent Bouzereau.
The film is shot in the chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, where Polanski is under house arrest having been released after two months in a maximum prison when he was arrested attending the 2009 Zurich Film Festival. If the camera had wandered under the table at which Braunsberg and Polanski were sitting, it would have alighted on the ankle monitor strapped to the interviewee’s leg. The tone is informal, if not quite relaxed, given the circumstances. One feels that Braunsberg is on the side of his subject. Paxo he is not.
After a brief discussion of his arrest, we return to the beginning of Polanski’s truly remarkable life. He was born in Paris in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, and his family moved back to Poland shortly before the war began. So starts possibly the most shocking part of the film, his experiences during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He tells of living in the Kraków ghetto, how his parents and sister were taken away (and his mother murdered in Auschwitz), the fear and violence, and how these experiences fed into his sole Oscar-winning film, The Pianist. Polanski even shows us how to make paper bags according to the methods taught by German slave labour masters.
After the war, Poland was taken over by the Soviets and as a teenager Polanski fell into acting, when the Scout troop he was a member of made a visit to a radio station which happened to need someone to fill a role. He then managed to wangle his way into film school, despite being originally turned down because his background was viewed as too bourgeois. This brings us to two key themes in Polanski’s life: the randomness of it all, especially of violence, and his own bloody-minded resilience. After struggles to get his first films made, Polanski met Sharon Tate (or Sharontate as he thought she was called), they married, she became pregnant and happiness reigned.
More random acts of violence ripped apart his life when the Charles Manson ‘Family’ murdered Tate and her friends at the house they were renting in Los Angeles. It is believed that the man they were really after was a record producer who had turned down Manson’s songs and had subsequently moved out of the house. This is where another theme raises its head: the duplicity of the press. After the murders, stories started appearing in the media blaming Polanski, and saying Tate and her friends had been taking drugs and were disreputable types.
After whistling through Polanski’s early and mid 70s films, Braunsberg says “suddenly you had this experience with Samantha”. That is one way of putting it, a phrasing that completely avoids the truth of the matter. Although “Samantha” sounds like she might be a friend, she was actually a 13-year-old girl and the “experience” he had with her was actually his having non-consensual sex with her – after he’d given her champagne and half a Quaalude – that is, he raped her. Here the documentary slightly skips through a complex case at speed. The long and short of it is that Polanski was to be sent back to prison at the judge’s prerogative, despite both parties having made a plea bargain that would have seen Polanski released. This was against the proper legal process, so Polanski fled.
If the film whizzed through the first part of the 70s at speed, try not to blink during the bit that covers the last 35 years of his life. He meets and marries French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, has children and finally achieves the happiness that was denied him with Sharon Tate. Oh yes, he makes a few films as well, although these are barely touched on. Finally, the interview resumes after Polanski has been released from house arrest. Braunsberg remarks that Polanski has “gone through more reverses than anyone I know.” To which the director responds that he has ups as well as downs. The downs have been pretty down though.
In the last bit of the film we see some clips of interviews with Samantha Geimer, in which she says that the media and the courts have made her suffer more than Polanski did. One’s immediate response might be to think that perhaps this clip has been taken out of context, perhaps that it was a quip that doesn’t reflect her more considered opinion of Polanski’s crime. But it turns out that she does feel this.
She wrote an op ed in the LA Times about whether the director should be awarded an Oscar for The Pianist in which she explains herself, she later wrote a book, The Girl, with her lawyer Lawrence Silver which went into the matter in greater detail. Silver has been her lawyer since the events in 1977 and also maintains that Polanski was subject to a miscarriage of justice. People who want to learn more about the case should probably watch two documentaries by Marina Zenovich called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which looks at the original case, and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, which investigates the attempt to extradite him from Switzerland in 2009 while this interview was being recorded.
There is certainly a lot to say about Roman Polanski – there are probably many films or TV series to be made of his life and work. At 92 minutes, this will go down as a rather brief entry into the catalogue of Polanskiana. If you want to know about his films, you will be frustrated by the lack of time devoted to his craft. If you want insights into his personality, you will have to do the hard work yourself. But if you want a brief overview of the life of a fascinating, contradictory, man, this is a good place to start.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is released on DVD on Monday 2nd June, 2014 and Curzon Home Cinema and Curzon Home Cinema for BT Box Office.