Ask any casual film fan about Roman Polanski, the brilliant Polish moviemaker responsible for ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and you’re likely to get the following response: “Wasn’t he the guy who raped that girl and then ran off to Europe to avoid prosecution?” Indeed, eight years to the day that his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in the Helter Skelter rampage of Charlie Manson and his family, the director was to be placed on trial for the seduction, drugging, and ‘he said/she said’ sexual encounter with a 13 year old girl. At the time, it was a true tabloid sensation, a circus wrapped inside the most sizzling of scandals. Today, it’s a story relegated to the above-mentioned gross overgeneralization. Thanks to Marina Zenovich’s brilliant new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the closest thing to the truth finally gets a much needed airing.
What’s clear is that Polanski and Samantha (Gailey) Geimer did indeed engage in physical contact, forced or otherwise. While the director pled innocent during his initial arrangements, the discovery of a pair of panties led to a backroom plea agreement. What’s also clear is that, through her lawyer, Geimer and her stage door mother wanted this case concluded in the most calm and clandestine manner possible. The early ‘70s was still a time when “accusing the victim” could be used in courtrooms, and while Geimer’s name (and reputation) was not public knowledge in the US, she was already labeled a pariah throughout Europe. In addition, while prosecutor Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton were on differing sides of the situation, both acknowledged that Polanski would not be in self-imposed exile today if it weren’t for the fame whoring judge at the center of the case.
The late Laurence J. Rittenband is painted as a series of concerning contradictions, a man obsessed with high profile celebrity crimes who himself aspired to similar notoriety as the arbiter of same. He purposely asked to be on the Polanski case, and used it as the basis for his own surreal courtroom drama. Zenovich does a brilliant job of deconstructing the truth. As part of his plea, Polanski was promised probation. The judge felt such a stance would get him in hot water with the media. As a compromise, all decided on a 90 day stay at the State Prison at Chino. While it would technically be for further discretionary review, it was farcical formality. Once released, Polanski would be more or less free. And the director actually did go to jail. He served 42 days in isolation, administrators afraid of what the prison population would do to a convicted child molester.
Oh course, what many in the mythology don’t acknowledge - and in turn, avoid today as being far outside the current social stigma - is that Polanski’s case was always going to be probation. He was a foreigner, easily deportable, and rich enough to fight any attempt at long term incarceration. The victim’s reluctance to testify also factored in to the supposed resolution. The reason Polanski served any time whatsoever is that Rittenband wanted to look tough on crimes of this nature. He wasn’t going to let stardom alter his perceived course of punishment. It is at this moment when Zenovich’s story goes from fascinating to sensational, and then shocking. It is clear that the judge wanted nothing more than to maintain a certain reputation with the press. He felt pressure to make sure Polanksi merely didn’t “walk”. Of course, this meant violating every code of judicial ethics that there were by manipulating lawyers into doing what he wanted and reneging on deals that were sealed behind closed courthouse doors.
That both sides now acknowledge that this happened turns the story at the center of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice ever. No one is denying that the director deserved punishment. Even when she intercuts information about Polanski’s past - his family destruction by the Nazis, the death of his wife at the hands of Manson - Zenovich never apologizes for what her subject did. For the filmmaker, his penchant for underage girls was clearly a carryover from a life on his own and a swinging ‘60s sense of invincibility. He never really denied the affair, just that it was rape. We even learn of the long term relationship he carried on with a teenage Natasha Kinski. Surprisingly, few in his homeland were up in arms over their May-December dalliances.
No, this documentary also indicts America, viewing it in the craven, prurient Puritanical light the country continues to be filtered through. Rittenband’s reactions are seen as the slightly insane ravings of a man perfectly in tune with how La-La land treats the truth. He overreacts when Polanski, on business for an upcoming movie, is photographed seated between two women during Munich’s Oktoberfect. When his very own Department of Corrections releases the director after less than half of his “sentence”, Rittenband takes it personally. Such invested irresponsibility is the real reason Polanski left. It wasn’t because he wanted to avoid further prosecution or his possible punishment. It’s because he could no longer count on getting a fair shake in a system that seemed to be making up the rules as it - or its representative, Rittenband - went along.
Sadly, it seems that no one really pays attention to the truth. Current reviews from Variety on down still tow a simplistic party line - Roman Polanski ran to France to avoid his guilt. In some ways, that’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened, substituting liability with legal logistics. Clearly, Zenovich made this movie to clear up the misconceptions, and with the myriad of talking heads she has at her disposal, her point is plainly and efficiently made. What remains is the ancillary belief that, no matter the amount of penance or perceived penance he paid, a severe lack of judgment forever altered the fate of one of film’s most important and influential auteurs. Roman Polanski deserves his badge of dishonor, no question about it. This amazing documentary argues that others need to start sporting one as well.