On this day: Roman Polanski flees

February 1 1978: A filmmaker escapes to France

By Jennifer Lipman, February 1, 2011

When the Swiss Justice Ministry rejected an extradition request from the United States for Polanski last summer, it was just the latest chapter in a story every bit as dramatic and complex as one of the director’s films.

Born Raimund Liebling in Paris, Polanski survived the Holocaust by escaping from the Krakow ghetto, although his mother was killed in Auschwitz.

After the war he worked his way up in the Polish film world, moving to Hollywood in the 1960s and going on to make Oscar-winning classics including Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist.

But his controversial personal life captured as many headlines as his professional; in 1969 his actress wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered, and in 1977 he was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year old girl.

He was convicted and the initial expectation was for Judge Laurence J Rittenband who heard the case to give him a sentence of a 90-day psychiatric study. But Judge Rittenband subsequently decided to raise the sentence, at which point Polanski skipped bail and fled to Paris, where he was not at risk of extradition.

His reprieve lasted more than 30 years, but in September 2009, while en route to the Zurich Film Festival to collect a lifetime achievement award, he was arrested by Swiss police acting under US direction.

Prominent Hollywood figures including Woody Allen and Stephen Frears signed a petition calling on the US authorities to drop the charges, while Polanski spent the subsequent ten months under house arrest in his chalet in Gstaad. He was declared a free man last July, at the age of 77.

What he told the JC: “I have always lived as an exile, or should I say, a fugitive. From a very small child I was fugitive. But that’s my life — it’s hard for me to imagine any other state.”

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 5:50pm, February 1 2011