Roman Polanski: artist or felon?

I often think of artists as people who are in every way, including morally, above an average person. I somehow have a difficult time associating any bad behaviour to them, given the beauty of the art they create. However, they are just people, and like any other person, they have their own dark side and weaknesses. Roman Polanski is one of them. In my essay, I try to answer a difficult question: can we separate an artist and his work from who he is, from his personal life and his wrongdoings?

A journalist once asked Polanski: “Are you a reckless person?” Polanski: “I am reckless, but I don’t tell people about it.” It was exactly this recklessness that made Roman Polanski face serious charges of rape and flee America.

Roman Polanski, an acclaimed film director, turned 83 in August last year. In his career, spanning almost six decades, he created some of the most memorable films in the history of cinema. His first feature Knife in the Water was nominated for an Oscar, and many years later, The Pianist, got him one for direction. Chinatown, which he made in 1974, is still said to be one of the best Hollywood films of that decade.

Polanski has won major film awards, both in Europe and in the United States. He is a a lifelong member of France’s Academy of Fine Arts. However, Roman Polanski is also a convicted felon; back in 1977, aged 43, he was convicted of statutory rape of a 13 year old girl. He pleaded guilty and struck a deal with the prosecuting attorney and the judge, according to which he would be let go after a short stay in prison. However, pressured by the press and the public, the judge changed his mind and, facing an undetermined jail sentence, Polanski fled to Europe where he has been living ever since.

This essay will try to answer a question whether an acclaimed artist such as Polanski, whose body of work is internationally recognised and admired, should be judged by his work or by his personal life and mistakes he made in the past. Should we or can we separate a man from his art, his personal choices from his artistic achievements? Is Polanski’s legacy as a film director more important then his legacy as a human being?

However, one cannot understand Polanski’s life and work without going back to his childhood years, which made him the way he is - a fighter and a surviver, a person that, after all the death and destruction that happened to him and around him, managed to bounce back and become a famous film director.

A many Polanski film deals with the dark side of human nature, starting from his student short Two Men and the Wardrobe, his first feature Knife in the Water, to his later films such as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist. Mystery, horror, lies, deception, betrayal, murder, run prominently in his films. No wonder - Polanski spent his childhood years in nazi-occupied Poland, in the Krakow ghetto, where he witnessed hatred, death and destruction on a daily basis. Both his parents and a half sister were taken away to the concentration camps. His father and his half sister survived, but his mother, who was pregnant at the time, never returned. She was taken to Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers upon arrival.

Young Polanski was lucky; he survived by taking refuge with a dirt-poor catholic family of farmers living in the Polish countryside, just a few miles away from Auschwitz. There he learned how to fend for himself and how to build a make-believe world in which he could live out his fantasies. Young Polanski was very small for his age, but he had a big dream of becoming a film director. Growing up in post-war communist Poland, he was lucky to be accepted by the prestigious Lodz film school. “What Polanski lacked in size, he made up for in attitude”, his friend said; he was a self-assured young man, full of ambition.

When Polanski achieved international acclaim with his first feature and left for London to do Repulsion, his second feature, his confidence was very high. But the peak in his career came after Rosemary’s baby, his first Hollywood production. He had it all. The film was a huge success, everyone wanted him. He was married to the woman of his dreams, Sharon Tate, he finally had financial stability. However, everything collapsed soon afterwards, when Polanski’s eight and a half months pregnant wife and friends were brutally murdered in 1969 by the members of the Manson’s family while Polanski was away on business in England.

How does one ever recover from such profound tragedy? “I am used to death a little bit like surgeons are used to seeing a stomach cut open” he said, decades later, when he was presented with the life time achievement award in Zurich.”

In an interview with Clive James in Paris in 1984, Polanski was asked why he behaved the way he did six months after the death of his wife, when he was in the Alps, “consorting himself with those girls from the finishing school”. Polanski answered, “Different people have different ways of seeing life and relationships [...] people react in different ways to grief, some go to the monastery, others start visiting whorehouses”. In this interview Polanski comes across as an arrogant man, a womaniser, who has no regrets; a far cry from a man who, almost three decades later, spoke about his life in a documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir; a soft spoken, teary old man, looking back at his life, his heart-breaking childhood and his conviction, with humility, not arrogance.

His self-assuredness reached its peak when James asked about the allegations regarding Polanski and young girls. “I like young women” and “girls of that age for some reason like me”, Polanski responded, as if providing a good enough a reason why he thought the sexual affair with Samantha Gaimer in Los Angeles, who was “two weeks short of being 14” was nothing out of the ordinary. However, Polanski was charged for it with six counts: “furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd or lascivious act on a child, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape by use of drugs, perversion and sodomy”. He struck a deal by pleading guilty to only one charge, unlawful sexual intercourse, and was sent to Chino prison for 90 days observation.

By today’s standards, he would, without a doubt, be labelled a pedophile. However, back in those days, as Polanski points out, it was difficult to find someone in Hollywood who had not been sexually active before 18 years of age, which was the age of consent in California, so that made a lot of people guilty of the same crime. A journalist who covered the case remembers a rumour going around the District Attorney’s Office that the case was given to Roger Gunson, a mormon, to prosecute, because he was the only one in the office who had not slept with an underaged girl. Furthermore, Polanski goes on to say that the girl consented and told him that she had had sex with other men in her life before him. However, since he was a public person, a celebrity, the media frenzy was relentless and went out of control.

Samantha Gaimer herself blames the press and the judge who was in charge of the case more than Polanski for the damage done to her and her family. She has forgiven Polanski and has even asked that the case against him be dropped. Polanski, on the other hand, sent an apology to Gaimer, saying that “she was a double victim, his victim and victim of the press”.

Upon his arrest in 2009 in Switzerland on pending charges in the Gaimer case, when Polanski was on his way to receive the lifetime achievement award in Zurich, media craze started yet again. In America, the public was divided; main stream Americans still considered him a child rapist and the authorities demanded his extradition. "Sex with children was, and always has been, anathema to Americans... the 'anything goes' cultural excesses of the time do not excuse Polanski from society's expectation that adults should protect kids, not exploit them". However, the Hollywood elite took Polanski’s side and defended him. Whoopi Goldberg went as far as to say, "I don't believe it was 'rape-rape'". Europe, on the other hand, seemed not to be interested in his sex case any more. Polanski has continued making films in Europe, where he is still held in high esteem as an artist. In 1999, he became a lifelong member of France’s Academy of Fine Arts. Peter Ustinov, who welcomed him at the ceremony, “declared that his films had earned him the well-deserved immortality of a seat at the academy”.

Polanski case has to be viewed in the context of what was socially acceptable in the celebrity circles at the time in the United States, however morally wrong that was. Polanski, being a celebrity, took advantage of the opportunity and did what he did, which was clearly very wrong. However, what was also very wrong was the perception by both society and the child’s family that it is OK to send a young teen at such a delicate age without parents’ supervision to model for a man with a reputation of a womaniser, to enhance the child’s modelling career.

So will Roman Polanski be remembered for his films or his sins? Polanski himself said, “I would rather be known for my work and for my artistic achievements then my private life”. One must acknowledge that his films will most likely outlive him, they constitute an important legacy for all film enthusiasts, film critics, and the new generation of film directors. Polanski’s cinematic allure has touched audience worldwide, perhaps because he has gone deep into the human soul, where many do not dare to enter, to examine the dark side of human nature. However, whether his films are more important then downfalls in his personal life is a difficult question to answer and perhaps should not be attempted to be answered at all. What ever Polanski’s crime, his artistic output needs to be judged independently. Polanski has built up an amazing body of work that is admirable on many levels. However, decades after the affair with Gaimer, the world is still polarised about his case and Polanski’s name continues to stir controversy and divide the continents. His longtime friend and colleague Andrew Braunsberg sums it up well by saying that in one part of the world Polanski is wanted, while in another he is desired.

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