The 100 Essential Directors Part 7

Kenji Mizoguchi to Satyajit Ray

by PopMatters Staff

21 August 2011


Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski
(1933 - present)

Three Key Films: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), The Pianist (2002)

Underrated: Tess (1979). A retelling of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic Tess of the d’Ubervilles that contains several hallmarks of classic Polanski: deliberate pacing that borders on discomfort; themes of seduction, betrayal, and revenge; and, ultimately, the fine lines of moral ambiguity. What makes Tess especially fascinating, however, is its place as an artifact in the meta-history of Polanski’s film career; made just two years following his infamous conviction in the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, Polanski cast in the titular role actress Nastassja Kinski, with whom he allegedly had been in a relationship since she was 15.

Unforgettable: “She’s my sister and my daughter!” Despite being heavily parodied in pop culture over the past 37 years, Chinatown’s twisted, truly legendary climactic confession holds a place as one of the most shocking moments in the history of film. Polanski’s pitch-perfect immersion into neo-noir unearthed extraordinary performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, who share the now-classic exchange; out of the mouths of less capable actors, and in the hands of a director without Polanski’s control, the scene might have devolved into sheer absurdity. 

The Legend: One of the most polarizing directors of our time, Roman Polanski is revered for his cinematic vision and reviled for his moral improprieties in seemingly equal measure. His films, both before and after his conviction in 1977, have been somewhat marred by the unending controversy, but close consideration of his life and work suggest a talented craftsman whose preoccupations and explorations on film are perhaps in direct proportion to the unspeakable tragedies that have plagued him. Born in Poland to agnostic Jewish parents, Polanski possessed no concept of a Jewish identity until the start of World War II. Though he, his father and sister survived the Holocaust, his mother died in Auschwitz. Later, influenced by the peasant Catholic family who hid him in hiding during the war, Polanski became a devout Catholic. He eventually went on to study acting and film at the National Film School in Łódź.

Polanski’s desire to insert aspects of himself into his narratives was expressed in one of his early student films depicting an incident in which he was brutally beaten and robbed by a man from whom he thought he was buying a bike. The attack would further shake Polanski’s already-diminished capacity to put trust in humanity. His films would progressively put this preoccupation with paranoia and distrust at the forefront of his work, beginning with his feature film debut Knife in the Water (1962) and later his “apartment trilogy”, compromised of films—Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976)—focusing on the ironic coldness, paranoia, and horrors that come with constantly being surrounded by others in close, shared quarters.

Rosemary’s Baby, the most commercially successful of the three, established Polanski as a major Hollywood player. Starring Mia Farrow as a pregnant newlywed suffering from horrific dreams suggesting she’s been impregnated by Satan at the behest of her claustrophobically-friendly neighbors, the film is considered one of the finest horror films ever made. The movie’s dealings with emotional and physical invasion on the deepest level would turn out to be grimly prophetic for Polanski: in August 1969, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, was murdered under the order of cult leader Charles Manson. Polanski’s emotional breakdown during this period would dissolve any remaining connection to his faith. “Any faith I had,” he wrote in his autobiography, “was shattered by Sharon’s murder. It reinforced my faith in the absurd.”

He reached the apex of his acclaim as a filmmaker with Chinatown, and even cast himself as “Man with Knife”, a henchman for a corrupt commissioner at the heart of the film’s mystery who slashes a snooping Jack Nicholson’s nose at the nostril. Polanski’s penchant for inserting himself into his films reached new heights when he cast himself in The Tenant. Again, it seemed Polanski had self-prophesized via film: following completion of the mind-bending exercise in paranoia, Polanski found himself the focus of worldwide scrutiny following his 1977 arrest. Shady dealings on the part of the judge assigned to Polanski’s case would prompt Polanski to flee to France to avoid additional jail time during sentencing.

Polanski saw another return to critical and commercial success with The Pianist (2002), winning the Oscar for Best Director. Based on Polish musician Władysław Szpilman’s memoirs of his harrowing Holocaust survival, this project would prove especially poignant for Polanski, bringing him full-circle to the horrors and losses of his childhood. Polanski once again inserts himself into the narrative, but this time, the horrors on screen, the most real and devastating he’d ever committed to film, would culminate in an uncharacteristic sense of optimism and redemption. For all the divisiveness surrounding Polanski the man there is an undeniable giving of the self from Polanski the filmmaker, an unflinching obligation to cinematize his truth, no matter how tragic or ugly. Joe Vallese



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