by Canadian Film Centre
Roman Polanski was born in Paris in 1933 to a Polish father and to a Russian mother, when he was four, the family moved to Krakow in Poland. They were living there in 1939 when World War II broke out, the Polanskis were forced into the Krakow ghetto with thousands of other Polish Jews by the Nazi invaders. Tragically, his parents were eventually sent to the concentration camps, his father survived but his mother was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The young Polanski managed to escape the Krakow ghetto with the help of a Polish Roman Catholic farmer who hid him in his outhouses, Polanski later wandered the Polish countryside for the duration of the war, managing to find shelter and sustenance with Catholic families. After the war, he was re-united with his father and moved back to Krakow. He began to become involved in acting and with the help of the great Polish film director, Andrzej Wajda was accepted into the Lodz Film School. It soon became apparent that Polanski had found his medium, the short films which he made while there being critically lauded. His first feature, Knife in the Water (1962) was what would become known as pure Polanski; a moody, brooding, smothering piece which explored the dark side of the human psyche and the seedy underbelly that belies human contact and relationships. It was almost all shot and set on the spatially controlled environment of a boat. The movie proved to be an international commercial success and it picked up an Academy nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
After making Knife on the Water (1962) Polanski moved to England where he made three films in succession based on original scripts written by him and his regular collaborator Gerard Brach. Polanski landed in London slap bang in the middle of Beatlemania and the swinging sixties. However, Polanski didn’t give a toss what was going on, he was possessed of a vision and he wasn’t about to drop it. His Repulsion (1965), starred Catherine Deneuve being terrified and wore it’s Surrealist influences on it’s sleeve as well as the earlier horrors and psychological thrillers of Bunuel, Cocteau and Hitchcock. His 1966 effort Cul-de-Sac was inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Pinter’s The Birthday Party and was no fun to make, just ask Donald Pleasance who lodged complaints over Polanski’s manic method of directing. It was on the set of this technically dazzling horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) where he met the beautiful actress Sharon Tate whom he fell in love with and married, she was his second wife after his earlier marriage to Barbara Lass. The couple moved to the Hollywood Hills, Polanski accepted a script entitled Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which Hitchcock had earlier turned down. Polanski threw himself into his work, the Hollywood crew were quite startled at his knowledge of all facets of filmmaking. Once again he illustrated his devotion to the truth forcing his leading lady, Mia Farrow to eat raw liver and she, the poor girl an avid vegetarian. The film earned another Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, the boy had arrived in the Hollywood set.
After the great success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a terrible tragedy was to befall Polanski’s life when on 9 August 1969, his wife Sharon who was eight months pregnant with their first child was brutally murdered along with four other people by members of Charles Manson’s cult ‘The Family’. Polanski, absolutely devastated, gave away all his possessions and returned to Europe, broken-hearted. He made two movies, Macbeth (1971) and What? (1972) before returning to Hollywood to direct the tour de force that was Chinatown (1974). Polanski once again refused to be influenced by what was in vogue and was not attracted by the stylistic freedoms of the New Wave filmmakers. He filmed with wide angle lenses, bright lights and precise framing but the film was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it was pure noir, launching a scathing attack on the American Dream, it was one of the most important films of the era, it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Soon after the release of Chinatown, Polanski was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen year old girl, he fled to Europe settling in France, the US authorities issued a request for his extradition which the French authorities turned down. Polanski now works and travels in countries that he cannot be extradited from, such as France, Poland and Germany. He immediately continued to work, making the claustrophobic The Tenant (1976) about a transvestite tenement dweller which once again explored the theme of urban alienation. He followed it with the curious choice of an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Tess (1979) received several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture andwon Oscars for best cinematography and best art direction, once again Polanski’s star appeared undimmed. However, he then disappeared from the film game for seven years and when he did return it was with the critical and commercial disaster that was Pirates (1986). It was the first time that a Polanski film was not well received, however he quickly recovered and followed it up with the critically acclaimed Hitchcockian-like Frantic (1988) starring Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner. Polanski and Seigner fell in love, were later married and have two children. Back on form, he cast Seigneur again in the strangely compelling Bitter Moon (1994); returned to his bizarre, triangular, paranoid , smothering pieces of before with Death and the Maiden (1994); and The Ninth Gate (1999) which although was originally perceived as a lacklustre Polanski has since begun to gather a cult following. He cemented his place among the pantheon of the world’s finest directors when his 2002 film The Pianist won the Palme d’Or, Cesar for Best Film and the Academy Award for Best Director. He did not attend the Oscar ceremony for fear that he would be arrested as there were still demands for his extradition by the US authorities. In The Pianist, Polanski returned to the horrific ground and terrible memories of his childhood in Nazi occupied Poland during World War II. Similarly perhaps in remembrance of his childhood, Polanski directed Oliver Twist (2005), he is currently working on The Ghost which is due for release in 2010.
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