With a string of instantly recognisable movies — Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist — Roman Polanski is one of the world’s pre-eminent filmmakers.
When Frantic was released in 1988, the influential American critic Roger Ebert dubbed him one of the few modern masters of the thriller and film noir.
Extraordinarily, Polanski’s first feature film, Knife in the Water, was nominated as best foreign language film at the 1964 Oscars. But even though the Polish drama lost out to Federico Fellini’s seminal 8½, the work is frequently cited as one of the best first films alongside Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
While coldly received back home in Poland, the film’s exploration of sexual power kick-started the breakaway of Polish cinema from its communist propagandist roots.
Polanski is one of the truly international directors, working at the top of Polish, American and French film industry, as well as British cinema during its ’60s heyday — think Repulsion.
Now a complete retrospective of his films is showing at the BFI on the Southbank, from his early shorts made while studying at the Lodz Film School, to his latest work, Carnage.
For Davide Caputo, author of Polanski and Perception, and lecturer in film at the University of Kent, Polanski stands alongside Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. “He mixes commercial cinema and art house technical mastery in a way few directors are able to do,” he says.
Yet there have also been the flops. Take the 1971 gory Tragedy of Macbeth, which lost £3.5 million, or the melodramatic, over-acted Bitter Moon, described by one critic as “downright terrible”.
The pinnacle of Polanski’s work remains Chinatown, the 1974 neo-noir thriller starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. His subsequent movies, according to film historian and critic David Thomson, suffered because of his exile from the United States — he fled after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor.
“He needed the danger in his life which he had in America. The retreat from the US didn’t do him any good artistically as he went back to Europe where he was safe and secure. Even The Pianist is one of his safer films because the ideology never comes under challenge. It’s conventional,” says Thomson.
Polanski is at his best when edgy and unsettling, going against the establishment. Repulsion, released in 1965, is set in London but avoids the “swinging ’60s” cliché and focuses instead on Catherine Deneuve’s slow descent into madness.
“Repulsion is made in an era when filmmakers got a new licence for sexuality and on-screen nudity. Yet this film depicts a woman’s sexual horror, which goes against the times and against Deneuve’s image. As a study in sexual aberration and terror, it’s a bold concept and a very provocative film,” says Thomson.
Polanski’s turbulent personal experiences add poignancy to his work. His childhood in the Cracow Ghetto, his escape on the day of its liquidation and his subsequent survival as a young Jewish boy on the Nazi-occupied streets informs both The Pianist and Oliver Twist. Similarly, antisemitism is confronted in The Tenant.
“You can’t deal with him and his English-language films without recognising he is a child of the Holocaust,” says Thomson.
His Tragedy of Macbeth is seen as his response to the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the notorious Manson gang, including as it does the reference to a baby being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb.”
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Polanski suddenly appears in his films with a notional wink to the audience — most famously perhaps in Chinatown as a vicious heavy who slices Jack Nicholson’s nose open.
Polanski’s films entertain, but there is always a serious core. “His films allow us to return, to find new resolutions and re-readings,” says Caputo. Chinatown, for example, draws parallels with the corruption in Los Angeles in the 1930s and in America at the time it was made, most notably the Watergate scandal.
His personal troubles continue to cast a long shadow. In 2005, he won £50,000 damages in a libel case against Vanity Fair magazine over an article that accused him of propositioning a woman while on the way to Tate’s funeral.
His testimony to the High Court in London hit headlines, too — as he became the first claimant in a libel trial to give evidence via live videolink.
Had he travelled to Britain, he faced possible arrest and extradition to the United States. Four years later, he was arrested by Swiss authorities on his way to the Zurich Film Festival on an American warrant, but was freed from house arrest 10 months later when the Swiss authorities refused the US extradition request.
Perhaps it is not surprising that claustrophobic spaces and the inability to escape are key Polanski themes, as characteristic as the sense of menace and anxiety that pervades his work.
“Polanski creates a mood or feeling and goes into places that other directors wouldn’t dream of,” says James Greenberg, editor-in-chief of the DGA Quarterly, the journal of the Directors Guild of America, who is currently writing a summary of Polanski’s work for publication this year.
For Thomson, Polanski’s talents are more relevant than ever. “If there was a new kind of film about guns in America or about changing attitudes about Israel, Polanski would be the man to direct it because he makes provocative films, the kind of films we need,” he says.