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The Warsaw Voice » Society » February 23, 2010
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Life in Technicolor
February 23, 2010 By Witold Żygulski   
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The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski has unexpectedly become one of this year's most anticipated films. Polanski coordinated post-production first from a jail and then while under house arrest in Switzerland, circumstances that are bound to provide box-office bounce.

The world premiere of The Ghost Writer was held Feb. 12 at the Berlin Film Festival to rave reviews from critics, who compared it to earlier Polanski thrillers such as Chinatown (1974) with Jack Nicholson and Frantic (1989) starring Harrison Ford. Polanski had previously received awards at the Berlinale festival for Repulsion from 1965 (Silver Bear) and Cul-de-sac from 1966 (Golden Bear).

Polanski was unable to attend the Berlin premiere; since the beginning of December, he has been under house arrest in the Swiss town of Gstaad. He has to wear an electronic monitoring device around his ankle and-apart from reporters-his house is surrounded by devices to raise the alarm if its resident steps out of bounds. The premiere in Berlin was attended by the film's stars, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, and Robert Harris, the author of the book on which the film is based.

Just as the stars were walking down the red carpet in Berlin to the film's premiere, international press agencies reported that Switzerland had announced it would not extradite Polanski to the United States until a court in Los Angeles issued a final decision that Polanski would have to appear in court in person.

Polanski was arrested by Swiss police at Zurich Airport Sept. 26 in connection with an outstanding 1978 U.S. arrest warrant. He had arrived in Switzerland to collect an award at a local film festival.

In 1977, Polanski was charged in California and pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor, which is regarded as a crime of statutory rape in that U.S. state. He had sex with 13-year-old Samatha Geimer in the home of actor Jack Nicholson in Los Angeles. Before the legal proceedings were completed, Polanski fled to France, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. Since 1975, he has had dual Polish and French citizenship.

Polanski has never since visited the United States, not even to collect an Academy Award for his film The Pianist in 2003.

Fierce debate
Following his arrest in Zurich, Polanski spent over two months in jail while his lawyers in Switzerland, France and the United States tried to keep their client from being handed over to the American judiciary. In the meantime, the film community around the world hotly debated whether an artist of Polanski's stature should be held responsible for what he did 32 years ago and whether his imprisonment complied with European legal and moral principles. Some celebrities signed petitions in defense of Polanski, while others said he should bear the consequences of his deed as well as of fleeing from justice.

In early December, Polanski's lawyers paid bail of 4.5 million Swiss francs and the director moved into a ski chalet he owns in Gstaad. He arrived under police escort, with a crowd of over 100 reporters and photographers waiting for him.

On Jan. 22, a judge in California turned down a defense motion for a judgment in the absence of the defendant. Polanski must appear in court, the judge ruled. Polanski's lawyers will probably appeal the decision. Until that matter is fully settled, the Swiss are unlikely to make any further moves. The final decision will come from Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who says the extradition proceedings might take another year.

Artistic masterpiece?
Despite his arrest, Polanski continued work on his latest movie. While in Zurich, he watched individual edited scenes on DVD and passed his comments to the producers by phone or via his lawyers. Once in Gstaad, he was able to use professional home cinema equipment, with a projector and high-end loudspeakers. It was in Gstaad that Polanski, in the company of Harris, saw the final version of The Ghost Writer on Jan. 17. Harris later told the press that when the movie ended, he and Polanski emptied a bottle of champagne, confident they had just completed a masterpiece.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the opening of The Ghost Writer form one more chapter in the complicated and controversial life of Polanski, whose professional and private life has proved hard to separate.

Polanski, whose real name is Raymond Roman Liebling, was born to a Polish Jewish family in Paris in 1933. When he was three, his parents returned to Poland and settled in Cracow. During the war, the whole family was moved to the ghetto. Polanski's mother was killed in a concentration camp, but he managed to survive. He has always said in interviews that the trauma of World War II made a permanent imprint on his life, forcing him to escape into the world of fantasy and creative work. He finally decided to tackle the Holocaust 40 years after his first feature-length film. In 2002, he directed The Pianist, the story of Polish Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman, who miraculously survived the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie won three Academy Awards, including Polanski' first Oscar for directing. Earlier, he had been nominated for an adapted screenplay for Rosemary's Baby and as the director of Chinatown and Tess.

International success
Polanski scored his first international success in 1962, shortly after he graduated from the ŁódĽ Film School, which has educated several generations of Poland's finest filmmakers. That was the year that Knife in the Water won the FIPRESCI award at the Venice International Film Festival. At the same festival in 1993, Polanski received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.

Polanski went to Hollywood in 1968 and made Rosemary's Baby, a film which has come to be regarded as a horror classic. But its success was overshadowed by a personal tragedy when the bodies of five people were found in Polanski's Bel Air villa in Los Angeles Aug. 10, 1969. Among the victims was 26-year-old American actress Sharon Tate, Polanski's second wife, who was eight months pregnant. Tate and four guests were massacred by the gang of Charles Manson, a self-proclaimed guru and one of the most infamous psychopaths of the 20th century. Polanski was in England when the tragedy happened. He quit working for two years. Then, in 1971, he directed The Tragedy of Macbeth, later considered the most bloody and brutal picture in his filmography.

Tess and Chinatown
Ten years after the Bel Air massacre, Polanski put a dedication "to Sharon" in the end credits of Tess, an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Hardy with Nastassja Kinski in the title role. "As a director, he was ten times more wonderful than as a lover," Kinski, aged 20 at the time, told tabloids, adding Polanski had been sleeping with her for several years. Tess won three Academy Awards for best cinematography, set decorations and costume design.

In the meantime, Polanski made Chinatown, one of the most successful films of his career. Set in 1930s Los Angeles and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the film noir-style thriller got 11 Academy Award nominations. It was the last movie Polanski made in the United States.

Many consider the film The Tenant from 1976 a milestone in Polanski's career, not only as a work of art, but also as a key to understanding the Polish director's personality. As well as directing the film, Polanski played the main role of Trelkovsky, a Polish immigrant who moves into a tenement house in Paris, renting an apartment previously inhabited by a woman who killed herself. As Trelkovsky, Polanski delivered a drastic image of loneliness and gradual collapse into insanity. Critics consider the role the best of Polanski as an actor, whether in cinema or theater, where he frequently appeared as well. The Tenant is also regarded, after Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, as the third part of a triptych devoted to mental deviations that hit people who live in apartments in big cities, where anonymity and the absence of soulmates are a one-way ticket to madness.

With Tess completed, Polanski went on a seven-year hiatus. Then he fulfilled what he described as a "boyhood dream" by making the adventure film Pirates in 1986. The movie got panned by critics and bombed at the box office. But success was just around the corner. In 1988, Polanski made a thriller titled Frantic. The cast included 22-year-old French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who the following year became Polanski's third wife. Today the mother of his two children, Seigner has appeared in two other Polanski movies. She starred in 1992 with Hugh Grant in Bitter Moon, the story of a pathological and destructive love, and then she and Johnny Depp played in The Ninth Gate, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte about the search for a mysterious book revealing the power of Satan. Between the two films, Polanski made a big-screen adaptation of Death and the Maiden, a Broadway play by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman. The movie, which is a graphic study of the relationship between a victim and a torturer, starred Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver.

After The Pianist, Polanski filmed Oliver Twist, an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, but the movie was received tepidly. If Polanski is to be believed, The Ghost Writer may be his big comeback. But it is hard to tell whether Polanski will get to enjoy his success as a free man. His fighting spirit has not abandoned him, however, and Polanski says he will start working on a new script while he sits out his house arrest in Gstaad.
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