Roman Polanski Polanski, Roman (Vol. 16)

Start Your Free Trial


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Roman Polanski Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Roman Polanski 1933–

Polish director, screenwriter, and actor.

Polanski's films are a compilation of assorted cinematic genres, encompassing surrealism, psychological thriller, the horror story and its parody, and the detective mystery.

He was born in Paris of Polish parents; the family moved to Kraców three years later. During World War II his parents were put in a concentration camp, where his mother died, and Polanski grew up in a series of Polish homes. He began acting professionally in theater when he was a teenager and later worked in films, including several with Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Polanski studied painting, sculpture, and graphics in Kraców and spent five years at the State Film College at Lódź, where he made Two Men and a Wardrobe. The film projects its maker's deep absorption with the tenets of surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd. About his early style, also informing The Fat and the Lean, Polanski has said: "I must confess that I was completely formed by surrealism."

Polanski's first full-length feature, Knife in the Water, initiated a career-long succession of films exploring the varieties of violence and estrangement. His second feature, Repulsion, has been likened to Alfred Hitchcock's definitive shocker Psycho for its study of inner torment that bursts into outward mayhem. Cul-de-Sac somewhat refines overt carnage into a surreal depiction of human chaos, drawing upon the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Some critics see a direct relationship between the turbulent background of this director's life and the array of unusual brutalities in his films, especially emphasizing this correlation after the bizarre murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski's second wife. Throughout his career Polanski has sought to articulate the extremes of human experience, leading necessarily to displays of violence in some form, though never limiting it to the single dimension of physical grue.

From the violence in the spiritual order of Rosemary's Baby to the violence of moral corruption in Chinatown and the psychological violence of The Tenant, Polanski investigates many levels of existential menace. More exactly, his concern is the atmospheric suggestion of potential havoc in the worlds in which his endangered protagonists exist. Polanski is adapting Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Polanski feels his film Tess will be representative of a mature phase in his career. He has said of the film: "I have been influenced a great deal by surrealism and the theater of the absurd…. But now that the world itself has become absurd and almost surreal, I want to go back to the simplicity and essence of human relationships." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Jonathan Harker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Two Men and a Wardrobe] juggles symbol and reality, lighthearted story and allegorical message in a casual manner we are hardly accustomed to….

The film's success is largely in its expert manipulation of two levels of meaning and in the flexible, "open" quality of its symbolism. I interpret the wardrobe to represent all the ethical, moral, and religious values considered "outmoded" in pre-Gomulka Poland—and, for that matter, throughout the world. The [wardrobe closet's] mirror then represents man's conscience, reflecting his own self-criticism. (It is this mirror which gives away the adolescents as they are about to attack a girl, and provokes a fight in which the mirror is smashed.) One published interpretation of the film states that the two men get into trouble because they try to interest organized society in their wardrobe. This is simply inaccurate. Rather, the wardrobe is a heavy burden, which the two will not put down or abandon, but which in turn amuses, affronts, or enrages everybody else. I do not wish to insist on this single "translation." The story could, for example, be read as a variant on the legend of St. Christopher. Again, one scene opens with a fish apparently floating among clouds in the sky. One of the two men picks the...

(The entire section is 11,904 words.)