Roman Polanski 1933-
Polish-born French director, screenwriter, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Polanski's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Known for his atmospheric and psychologically complex films, Polanski began his career working on state-sponsored films in his native Poland. After the release of his first full-length feature, Nóz w wodzie (1962; Knife in the Water), Polanski relocated to the United States, and later France, where he released a series of acclaimed films that explored such complex issues as corruption, sexual desire, obsession, and the abuse of power. These films include Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), and Chinatown (1974). In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, Chinatown was ranked nineteenth. Polanski's 2002 film The Pianist examines life in the Polish ghettos during World War II, a subject with which Polanski is intimately acquainted—he was imprisoned in the Krakow ghetto during his youth and his mother was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The Pianist was awarded the 2002 Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, and the film also won the best actor, best adapted screenplay, and best director Academy Awards in 2003 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933, to Polish-Jewish parents. When he was three years old, his family returned to Poland, settling in Krakow. During World War II, when Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, Polanski's family was forced to live in the Krakow ghetto, a cramped section of the city where all Jews were forced to live. Polanski escaped from the ghetto when he was eight years old after his father cut a hole in a barbed-wire fence. Soon after, his parents were sent to concentration camps. Polanski spent the remainder of the war posing as a non-Jewish orphan and was taken in by several Catholic families in rural Poland. Shortly before the war ended, Polanski returned to Krakow, selling newspapers to make a living. His mother was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp, but he was reunited with his father when he was twelve. Polanski, who had never received a formal education, later enrolled in a technical school. As a teenager, he also worked as a child-actor in radio shows and appeared as a stage actor in a variety of productions. In 1954 he enrolled in the Polish Film School at Lodz, graduating in 1959. Polanski won five international awards for his fifteen-minute student film Dwaj ludzie z szafa (1958; Two Men and a Wardrobe). His first full-length film Knife in the Water attracted praise from critics and audiences alike, and Polanski began travelling between France, England, and the United States to work on motion pictures. In 1969 tragedy struck when Polanski's wife, the American actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant at the time, was brutally murdered in their Los Angeles home by followers of Charles Manson, a deranged cult leader who used sex, drugs, and violence to control his followers. Polanski was in London at the time of the murder and later left the United States to permanently settle in Europe. He obtained French citizenship and moved to Paris, though he frequently returned to Hollywood for filmmaking projects. In 1977 Polanski was arrested on charges of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old fashion model in the Los Angeles home of actor Jack Nicholson. While released on bail, Polanski fled the country and never returned for his trial. Due to his legal status as a fugitive from justice, Polanski has not since returned to the United States. However, Polanski has continued to make films produced by British, French, Italian, and American companies. In 1984 he married French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who has starred in several of his films, including Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992), and The Ninth Gate (1999). That same year, Polanski published his autobiography titled Roman. Polanski's films have won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize from the Tours Film Festival for Ssaki (1962; Mammals), the International Film Critics Award for Knife in the Water, the Venice Film Festival Award and the Golden Bear Award from the Berlin Film Festival for Repulsion. He also received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay for Rosemary's Baby, the Golden Globe award for best director and an Academy Award nomination for best director for Chinatown, and the BAFTA Award for best picture and the National Society of Film Critics award for best picture for The Pianist.
Polanski's films often include elements of mystery or suspense, typically used to heighten his emotional and psychologically dense thematic material. He also displays an affinity for the absurd—as seen in his early shorts Gdy spadaja anioly (1959; When Angels Fall) and Gruby i chudy (1961; The Fat and the Lean)—which suggest the influence of the surrealist works of playwright Samuel Beckett and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Knife in the Water concerns a tense triangle between a young couple and a mysterious hitchhiker, whom the couple has invited to accompany them on a yachting vacation. After noticing the hitchhiker's preoccupation with his attractive wife, the husband unwittingly creates conflict when he accidentally drops the hitchhiker's most prized possession, a knife, into the ocean. In Repulsion Polanski constructs a narrative around a sexually-repressed young woman's descent into insanity and murder. A wounded criminal and his partner take over an English castle in Cul-de-Sac (1966), and a bizarre relationship begins to form between the kidnappers and their hostages. Rosemary's Baby was Polanski's first Hollywood film to become a worldwide critical and popular success. The film cleverly creates a horrific spin on the anxiety that expectant mothers often experience during their pregnancies. In the film, Rosemary, a new mother, has unwittingly been chosen by a satanic cult to give birth to the Anti-Christ. In 1971, along with screenwriter Kenneth Tynan, Polanski wrote and directed an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Macbeth. In Polanski's Macbeth, the director emphasizes the duality and irony behind Shakespeare's characters, while vividly portraying the play's inherent violence.
Chinatown is Polanski's most acclaimed work and is considered by many critics to represent a modern deconstruction of the film noir genre. The plot follows Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective in the 1950s, as he investigates a mystery involving the irrigation of the Los Angeles valley. Incest and murder are used as symbolic representations of the deep-seeded levels of corruption that surrounded the founding of the city of Los Angeles. The protagonist in The Tenant (1976) moves into an apartment where the former occupant committed suicide. After a series of strange occurrences, the new tenant begins suspecting that his landlords are trying to make him kill himself, causing him to descend into a state of schizophrenic madness. Polanski followed The Tenant with Tess (1979), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. After releasing the critically-panned Pirates (1986), a parody of swashbuckling Errol Flynn films, Polanski returned to his roots with the psychological thriller Frantic. The film creates an atmosphere of paranoia with the story of an American tourist in Paris who discovers that his wife has been kidnapped. Polanski shifted his focus to sexual obsession in Bitter Moon, an examination of dominance and submission in modern relationships. The plot follows a vacationing British couple on a cruise, where they meet a crippled American and his exotic wife. As the British husband becomes consumed with his lust for the American's wife, the American recounts how he and his wife first met. Death and the Maiden (1994), based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, also explores dominance and cruelty. Taking place in an unnamed South American country, a woman—who has been raped and tortured by government officials—believes she has found the doctor who perpetrated those abuses. She holds the doctor captive in her home, tied to a chair, alternately interrogating him and testifying about the horrors she underwent while imprisoned. Polanski revisited supernatural themes in The Ninth Gate, a thriller about an amoral book dealer who is hired by a millionaire to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a book rumored to be written by the Devil himself. Informed by Polanski's own experiences during World War II, The Pianist is based on the memoir of Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman lived through the invasion and occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the erection and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the deportation of his family to a concentration camp, the Jewish and Polish uprisings in Warsaw, and the eventual defeat of Germany by Allied forces.
Polanski's career in the film industry has attracted a wide range of responses, encompassing both critical and popular successes and failures. Chinatown has often been regarded as Polanski's masterpiece by critics, with scholars praising the film's multi-layered complexity as a revisionist film noir, asserting that the work both subverts and reinvents the classic genre. Polanski's early films—including Knife in the Water and Repulsion—have been noted for their preoccupation with sexual tension and surrealistic representations of modern life. Reviewers have frequently lauded Rosemary's Baby as an intelligent portrayal of feminine anxiety as well as a remarkably effective story of psychological horror. However, after his successes of the 1960s and 1970s, Polanski's films of 1980s and 1990s have generally been regarded as lesser works by critics and audiences alike. The large-budget productions of Tess and Pirates have frequently been labelled by commentators as unfocused and obtuse. Bitter Moon, perhaps Polanski's most controversial film, has been faulted by many critics for its overly explicit representation of a sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Such reviewers have argued that the film lacks dramatic tension and creates a heavy-handed portrayal of sexual experimentation. Feminist scholars have criticized Bitter Moon as a misogynist text built around sophomoric male fantasies. The film's supporters, on the other hand, have commented that the strength of Bitter Moon lies in its effective ambiguity of tone, placing the spectator in the uncomfortable dilemma of not knowing which character to sympathize with. Despite the critical indifference to several of his more modern films, Polanski has drawn almost universal praise for The Pianist, with some arguing that the work is among the greatest Holocaust films ever made. Commentators have lauded how Polanski utilizes his own experiences to enrich the subject material of the The Pianist, citing the film's emotional complexity and effectiveness. Reviewers have also complimented how, despite his past, Polanski establishes a tone of detachment and emotional distance in his portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust. Some have asserted that this attitude of distance fails to engage the spectator's emotions, but a majority of critics have lauded The Pianist as one of Polanski's most finely crafted films.