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Roman Polański on the set of The Tenant, 1976, photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Forum
The youngest 80-year-old of world cinema, an artist of iron-cast intellectual discipline and an unparalleled sense of humour. Polański’s cinematography is intrinsically bound with the drama of his life, of which the rises and falls could be – and in fact, are – the inspiration for many a film
Roman Polański was born in Paris on the 18th of August 1933. In 1936 his father Mojżesz Liebling decided to move to Kraków together with his wife, Bula, his stepdaughter, and 3-year-old Romek.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the family found themselves confined to the Kraków ghetto, sharing their apartment with four, and at one time even five other families. The Germans soon sent Roman’s best friend to a concentration camp, and later on his own mother was taken to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Roman’s stepsister was also sent to Auschwitz and, although she survived, she moved to Paris after the war and never wanted to hear of returning to Poland.
With the help of some friends, his father managed to hide little Roman away outside of the ghetto. It was during this period that the boy first encountered the world of the cinema. He would recall of the German films of the era, “They were terrible! But for me it was like a land of fairy tales”. In fact, it was thanks to the subtitles in the films that he learned to read. In the ghetto, children didn’t study – they were forced to work (glueing paper bags for Germans was one job he recalled). While hiding from the German occupiers, the little boy Roman found himself in the village of Wysoka near Wadowice, only to return to Kraków after a few weeks. He stayed in Kraków until the end of the war and was happily reunited with family members – first with his uncle, and then with his father.
“I was always the worst one in class, but teachers somehow pushed me through because they thought I was talented”, Polański would recall years later. He was always in the spotlight at campfires, school performances and poetry readings. “I was a star in this group”, he commented.
He conjured up a little radio for himself and often listened to the children’s show Wesoła gromadka / Happy Lot produced by Maria Filiżanka. One day the young listeners were invited to come to the studio, and Filiżanka asked what they didn’t like about her show. Roman blatantly replied that the children who took part in it were phony. When asked if he could do better, he responded “yes”. This got him his first entertainment job, at age 13.
A year later, Filiżanka became the headmaster of the theatre Scena Młodego Widza / Scene of the Young Spectator and Polański was cast in the main role in a performance entitled Syn pułku / The Son of the Regiment. In spite of these beginnings, he was never admitted into the acting schools of Kraków and Warsaw. There was a political dimension to these repeated rejections: Polański’s father was the owner of a small company, therefore a representative of “private initiative”, condemned in the new communist Poland. Thus, the teenager was regarded a “class enemy”. Even the musical-acting school shut its doors to him. An argument proclaimed by one jury boards stated “There aren’t too many roles for a man of your posture”.
The prominent director and pedagogue Antoni Bohdziewicz saw Polański perform on stage and offered him a role in 1953 in the film Trzy opowieści / Three Tales, of which he was an artistic supervisor. Soon afterwards, Jerzy Lipman, an outstanding cinematographer of the Polish Film School, called the Polański home with news that Andrzej Wajda was eager to engage Roman in his debut feature, Pokolenie / The Generation. This film would change Polański’s life. He played the character Mundek, a young boy collaborating with the anti-German resistance. His secondary role at times surpassed even that of Tadeusz Łomnicki, who went on to become a legendary Polish actor.
Roman Polański, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska, Tadeusz Janczar and Ryszard Kotys in Wajda's Pokolenie, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa.
Encouraged by Bohdziewicz, in 1954 Polański applied to the Film School in Łódź. During his studies he met his first wife, Barbara Lass-Kwiatkowska, a beautiful actress and star of Polish cinema in the 1950s.
Kluba, Morgenstern and Nowicki speak about Polański. The fragment of the Filmówka documentary. Watch the full film on ninateka.pl
His first student-film excercises already manifest the bedrock of Polański’s style, as well as the themes which reiterated in his future films for decades to come.
In less than two minutes, Uśmiech zębiczny / A Toothful Smile (1957) reveals the theme of voyeurism, with the erotic perceived as a battlefield between men and women. The equally brief Morderstwo / A Murderer anticipates Polański’s fascination with cruelty and crime. The excellent Lampa / The Lamp (1959) seduces with dream-like atmosphere and underlying anxiety. Gdy spadają anioły / When Angels Fall (1959), is a beautiful albeit ironic tale of an old cleaner who flees into the world of dreams and memories of the past.
Polański speaks about his stance toward memories. The fragment of a documentary Tratwa kultury (Cukture Raft), watch the full version on ninateka.pl
The most significant of Polański’s study films – which are still discussed today – are Rozbijemy zabawę / Break Up the Dance (1957) and Dwaj ludzie z szafą / Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). The young director broke with the idea of socialist realism in these works and sketched out a portrait of the Polish society wherein a mask of convention covered up latent evil instincts. Break Up the Dance impressed master director Andrzej Munk, and Two Men and a Wardrobe won third prize at the World Cinema Fair in Brussels.
Towards the end of the 1950s, together with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg, Polański wrote the script of Knife in the Water (presented with the Best Script in the History of Polish Cinema title in 2009 at the Lato Filmów festival). The story of psychological play between a young hitchhiker, a rich, mature man and his wife brings together the universal value of this archetypical triangle with a critique of bourgeois opportunism. It anticipates topics that will continually inspire Polański – similiar stories form the narratives of films including Cul-de-Sac (1966) and the recent Carnage (2011). Polański often employs a closed narrative structure, and characters that he isolates from the rest of the world become representatives of social and cultural values. As he bases his film on dialogue, the diractor thus trangresses the threshold of a psychological here-and-now and looks into universal mechanisms of human power struggle.
Leon Niemczyk and Zygmunt Malanowicz in Knife in the Water by Roman Polański, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa.
Yet at the end of the 1950s the first secretary of the Communist party, Władysław Gomułka demanded the production of films that would “depict the youth of our nation with full engagement and passion, and the country’s fight for economic development, the sacrificial toil of the working class, intelligentsia, the Polish countryside, women and youth”. Polanski’s new script didn’t make it through the selection of the Ministry of Culture, and in 1960 he left Poland and headed to France. He returned in 1961, when Jerzy Bossak managed to convince the authorities to give Polański a chance of making what would be his feature-film debut.
Gomułka was not happy with the result; he is even remembered for throwing an ashtray at the screen while watching the film. Following that screening of Knife in the Water, Gomułka declared that “we have no need for such films” and accused Polański and Skolimowski of being “malcontents”. And although the film is one of the few Polish pictures made in the 1960s to have enjoyed international success, journalists of the era crushed it with the adjectives “pretentious and nonsensical”. For this film – one that stands the test of time to this day – Polański was accused of copying the French New Wave. This accusation was made in spite of the fact that Polański himself criticised the artists of that movement, by pointing to lacks in their craft and a formal void.
After the premiere of Knife in the Water in 1962, Polański once again travelled to France, and the film set out to conquer international festivals. It was presented with the FIPRESCI Award in Venice, and appreciated in Teheran and Panama, and in 1963 it was nomintated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to Fellini’s 8 1/2). It was also read in the context of psychonanalysis, which was very much a trend in the West at the time, and interpreted as a tale about the Oedipus complex.
This success allowed Polański to pursue his cinematic projects. The London-based Compton Films, which specialised in B-horror films, accepted a script written by the director in collaboration with Gerard Brach. It was the story of a woman gradually sinking in her own madness. Years later, Polański commented in the documentary Roman Polański: A Film Memoir “I never really liked Repulsion. I made it to get off the ground. It was a bit like prostitution”. But in 1965, the horror film starring the young Catherine Deneuve was presented with the FIPRESCI award in Venice, and the Jury’s Special Award in Berlin. Thanks to this recongnition, Polański was able to make his Cul-de-Sac, one of the best pictures of his career, also co-written with Brach.
Cul-de-Sac told the story of a couple living in an abandoned castle on an island, who are visited by a pair of gangsters. It drew on the theatre of the absurd, with echoes of Ionesco and Beckett – its initial title evoked the play Waiting for Godot. After many years, Polański would describe Cul-de-Sac as the first film of which he was proud. He left London for Hollywood in 1967, where he would become famous as director of The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).
Although the director’s oeuvre spans six decades, it is shows an unparalleled congruity. Polański today is faithful to the style that he had established as early as the 1960s, and continues to ask the same questions.
Solitude in the Hell of Memory
Polański depicts the infernal nature of memories, which we seem to create only to get lost in its dark little corners. In his autobiography, he admitted “As far as I can remember, the boundary between fantasy and reality was always hopelessly blurred for me”.
His protagonists are usually lonely, misunderstood and living in isolation. The main character in Repulsion experiences the triggering of psychosis and completely shuts herself off from the outside world. The loneliness of the titulary The Tenant (1976) leads to a blurring of his identity. And, in a film created nearly twenty years later, Death and the Maiden (1994), three people locked away from the world are forced to face their own past, their sense of guilt, and the desire for revenge.
Polański’s characters seem unable to escape the trap of isolation. The witty bondage scene of the comedy Pirates (1986), condenses this image of trapping. In the beginning, a couple of shipwreck survivors are rescued as they float on a raft, only to be once again drifting on this “prison” at the end of the film.
Culture and Atavisms
The clash between culture and nature, contrasting convention and atavism, has intrigued Polański since his feature debut. As early as the Knife in the Water, he juxtaposed a middle-class opportunist with a youthfull “rebel without a cause”, and made a woman the object of their battle. He has repeatedly returned to the topic. Death and the Maiden showed desire for revenge as one of the basic human instincts. Carnage, based on the play by Yasmina Reza, is a comedy written for four characters that conveys a game of semblances. For Polański it is a game in which all people attack each other below the waist, and the sole shields – albeit not ones that withstand the attacks – are cliches of class, culture and gender.
Dark Women and Weak Men
The masculine-femininedichotomy forms a core of Polański’s films – in many, it also becomes the motor of the plot. Some accuse him of misogyny, while others see the pictures he creates as a proclamation of the superiority of the mythical Woman.
Inarguably, women in Polański’s films frequently represent the world of darkness. A young smuggler played by Emanuelle Seigner in Frantic (1988) becomes Harrison Ford’s guide through dangerous Parisian nightlife, and in The Ninth Gate (1999), the demonic Green-eyed time and again saves poor Corso (Johnny Depp) from trouble. In Bitter Moon (1992), a young woman mutilates her older lover. It is also a woman who pulls at the strings of political intrigue in The Ghost Writer (2010), and in Venus in Fur (2013), a feminine protagonist symbolically castrates the man.
The sexuality with which Polański saturates his films is intertwined with violence and death. Already in his Film School exercise, A Toothed Smile, lust triggered evil in the protagonist’s psyche. The topic would return in the director’s later works, with Death and the Maiden probably the boldest example. Although it is not quite a successful picture, it is an almost clinical record of Polański’s obsession. In the film, sex is a means of executing violence (the torturers rape the main character, and years later she gags them with her underwear), and Eros and Thanatos embrace tightly in a disturbingly seductive dance.
The strong women of Polański’s films repeatedly break free of the established order, while the men are either slaves or cynical manipulators. In Tess (1979), it was men who defended social convetions only to mask their own lust. In Death and the Maiden, the need of revenge felt by the leading feminine character was pacified by masculine exigencies in a systemic order.
In his article devoted to Cul-de-Sac, the critic Michał Oleszczyk noted:
Women are not exactly protected in the director’s universe (as they often meet with drastic violence), but they seem to possess a natural superiority over the masculine kind. Whether it’s Lady Macbeth or Rosemary, in the end, their instinct of surviving elevates them above the Y chromosome owners. (...) Although throughout the film she seems to have been the victim of a conspiracy, in the last scene Rosemary accepts the role of a mother, and her tender smile has something triumphant about it – even the devil will be subject to her will and depend on her care.
For years, Polański seems to have led a peculiar game with both the audience and critics – he would toy with his own biography and speak about himself in a seemingly open manner, only to soon afterwards hide under masks of form and an imaginatively artificial world. Following the premiere of Bitter Moon (1992), he stated in an interview:
Creating films is like taking an X-ray of the soul, so of course it’s all about me. But the way in which they [journalists] see this is simplified, naïve and idiotic.
Even if most psychological interpretations flatten the oeuvre of Polański, there were times when the cinema proved therapeutic for him, and became a means of conducting a dialogue with himself as well as the audience. When the director's wife, Sharon Tate (nine months pregnant at the time), was murdered by Charles Mason's followers in 1969, along with three of their friends, the press went as far as blaming Polański for Tate’s death, arguing that hiring satanist leader Shandor LaVey as a consultant for writing the script of Rosemary’s Baby provoked the crime. Polański, who never ceased to regret being absent on the day of the murder, decided to respond with a film. He quit working on the Day of the Dolphin – a project that he was preparing with Jack Nicolson – and began to make Macbeth (1971). In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, he made a desperate attempt at reflecting on his wife’s death. It remains one of the strangest, most shocking films of his career, and received very mixed reviews.
Polański was arrested in the U.S. in March 1977 and charged with seducing and raping Samantha Geimer, a minor then named Samantha Gailey. After a year’s battle in court – of the judge's abuse, Polański recalled that “I was treated like a mouse that a huge bored cat simply plays with” – he fled the U.S. hours before the official proclamation of the sentence, never to return there again. Public opinion in the U.S. turned against him, and he toyed with it by shooting Tess in France. The story, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy, depicts a 16-year-old who is taken advantage of sexually by one of her rich older relatives.
Polański was detained by Swiss police in September 2009 at Zurich Airport while trying to enter Switzerland, in relation to his outstanding the 1978 arrest warrant in the U.S. He was on his way to the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
He spent months in house arrest in Gstaad. Polański later conveyed the sense of besiegement in his film The Ghost Writer. The film was created in 2010, starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, and met with very enthusiastic reviews. It received the European Film Award, the Silver Bear of the Berlin Film Festival, as well as four Cesars.
“If I only got to have one roll placed on my grave, I would like it to be The Pianist”, replied Polański when asked which of his movies he values most. While filming the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman, Polański saturated the picture with remembrances of his own. The scene in which Szpilman (Adrien Brody) finds a can with cucumbers among the rubbles and ruin echoes the wartime fate of Polanski’s mother. The film also brought to life memories, after decades, of his father’s arrest by SS officers, a woman shot by a German solider, and children led out of the camp barracks...
The Pianist is not the only film in which he reflected his childhood traumas. In Oliver Twist (2005), Polański conveyed the fate of an orphaned boy trying to survive in a hostile world. The early short Mammals (1962) captures one of Polański’s most intense memories. The man who walks in solitude among the snowy fields echoes the time of waiting for his father’s return from the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Polański’s oeuvre is suspended somewhere between the absurd and the serious. It oscillates between a faith in the power of cinematic convention and an untamed imagination. Mariola Dopartowa, author of the monograph The Labyrinth of Polański, noticed that through the years, the director was monikered the Gombrowiczian Józio (after the writer Witold Gombrowicz), a provocateur and a cunning new sort of Kafka. Dopartowa argues this is due to the fact that Polański addresses existential issues, all the while mocking, provoking and irritating.
Her observation holds true for his most recent picture, Venus in Fur, which tells the story of a director who becomes the erotic victim of an actress. The roles of the director and actress are played respectively by Mathieu Almaric and Emanuelle Seigner, Polański’s spouse.
Roman Polański and Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Fighters, dir. Roman Polański, photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Forum.
While directing Pirates, he took on the perspective of a child, drawing on classics of adventurous cinema, and in The Fearless Vampire Killers, he created one of the best parodies of vampire films. He also took to irony on the theatre stage. When visiting Poland in 1981, during the “carnival” of the Solidarity movement, he staged Amadeus at the Teatr Na Woli in Warsaw. Polański cast himself in the role of Mozart, getting back at those who claimed there were few roles for men of his height.
The 80-year-old Polański maintains the wit and talent that took him to the top and brought him honors including the Golden Lion in Venice, an Oscar, numerous Cesar awards and membership in the French Academy of Fine Arts. He is preparing another cinematic project, D, for 2014. It will tell the story of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer who was Jewish and unjustly convicted of treason in 1894, and sentenced to life imprisonement in the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast French Guiana.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, filmography by Ewa Nawój, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 16.08.2013
Bartosz Staszczyszyn's sources: Roman by Roman Polański; Filmweb; Roman Polański i jego filmy by Grażyna Stachówna; Roman Polański: A Life Memoir, dir. Laurent Bouzereau; Labirynt Polańskiego, by Mariola Dopartowa; Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller, by Ewa Mazierska.
Etudes and short films:
- 1955 - Magic Bicycle (lost). A scene based on a true childhood event. As a child, Polański was knocked senseless by a thief who stole his bike.
- 1957 - Murder. A crime scene. A murderer comes into a room and stabs a sleeping man dead with a knife.
- 1957 - Let's Spoil the Party. A group of hooligans interrupts a party. Polański hired Lodz hooligans to have a fight with his friends having a party and filmed the fight he had arranged. Polański got a warning for this provocation by film school authorities.
- 1957 - Toothed Smile. A snoop watches a woman from a bathroom window. The woman's face cannot be seen through her hair. The snoop goes away for a moment and when he is back, he can see a grinning man instead of a woman.
- 1958 - Two Men with a Wardrobe. Two men carry a wardrobe with a mirror. This serves as a pretext to show a variety of cruel, shocking and sometimes funny scenes. The idea of a wardrobe with a mirror was undoubtedly inspired by Franciszka and Stefan Themersons' 1937 film Adventures of a Kind Man. Awards: Special Award for experimental work at the San Francisco International Film Festival; award of the Film weekly for direction at the Warsaw Etude Festival of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre; Honorary Diploma at the Oberhausen International Short Feature Film Festival.
- 1958 - When Angels Fall. A feature etude based on Leszek Szymanski's short story The Toilet Woman. Polański's diploma work. An old woman working in a public toilet, played by Polański, reminiscences on her life while the toilet is visited by the customers. Far-from-romantic present-day reality clashes with retrospectives of romantic past with mallows, uhlans and characters from sentimental songs. Illustrated with archetypal paintings styled as canvasses by Kossak, Grottger, Malczewski and other painters of Poland's glorious past, and as cheap paintings bought on Church feast days. An ironic film mocking the lofty tone of "the Polish School" of filmmaking.
- 1959 - Lamp. After a toy shop is closed, a fire bursts out and consumes doll bodies resembling human bodies.
- 1961 - Le Gros et le Maigre (The Fat and The Lean). A film produced in France with Polański playing the Lean One. The Fat One sits in an armchair and takes advantage of his position to bully the Lean One. The Fat One is the master, the Thin One his obedient servant. This is a film about the arbitrariness of the notion of freedom.
- 1962 - Mammals. Polański wrote the script together with Andrzej Kondratiuk. Two travelers walk through a snow desert. Initially they support each other and, using the sledge, take turns to get rest. Gradually the true human nature starts to take over the principles and each traveler is ready to exploit the other to his own benefit, using ruses and force. A formally interesting and visually sophisticated film. Creative use of a white prop (bandage) against the white backdrop of the snow. Awards: Grand Prix at Tours, 1962; Main Prize at Oberhausen, 1963; First Prize at the Cracow Short Film Festival.
- 2012 - A Therapy. A short movie shot for Prada that reunites Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley and Roman Polański. A sophisticated, playful and ironic portrayal of the fashion world. The short premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2012
- 1961 - Knife in the Water. Script written by Polański together with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg. Polański also dubbed the hitchhiker's voice. A psychological drama. A married couple invites a hitchhiker to their yacht. Three people in a dramaturgically closed situation: an attractive woman and two men of different age and social status. The presence of the woman makes them rivals, each seeking to get advantage. The older man wants to impress others with his financial status, the younger pretends to be independent and contemptuous of material goods. While seemingly winning the rivalry, the younger man turns out to be a poser. The older man, in turn, proves a coward shunning responsibility. Interpreted in the context of the generation gap, Knife in the Water was received enthusiastically for its universality, while being attacked by the Polish authorities. Wladyslaw Gomulka, the first secretary of the communist party, disliked the film's head-turning chatter about the generation gap and its praise for the consumer life style. Awards: FIPRESCI Award at the International Film Festival, Venice 1962; Golden Duck Award of the Film weekly, 1962; Oscar nomination in the Foreign Film Category, 1963; Young West-German Critics' Award at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, 1964.
- 1964 - La riviere de diamants ou Amsterdam (The Diamond Necklace or Amsterdam). A story within the film Les plus belle escroqueries du monde (The Most Beautiful Frauds of the World). Script by Gerard Brach. A young woman commits a brilliant fraud to get into possession of a piece of jewellery, using a man she has just met. Pretending to be the man's wife, she misleads the gullible jeweler, orders the jewel delivered to the man's house, then runs away with the necklace. The theft is clearly not just art for the art's sake, for she goes on to swap the necklace for a ... parrot. The story directed by Polański was considered the most interesting of all, but the critics found some similarities with the plot of Frank Borzage's 1936 Temptation, and Polański had to repel accusations of plagiarism.
- 1965 - Repulsion. Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach. The world is seen from the point of view of the central character (played by Catherine Deneuve), whose mind is being increasingly attacked by a mental illness. Alone in the flat after her sister has left, she gives in to obsessions that till then were suppressed. The fear instigated by the sick image of the world created by her imagination pushes her to committing a crime. Repulsion was compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and the carefully dosed suspense and claustrophobic scenery contributed to its success. Favourable reviews appeared in Poland, too, though accompanied by the criticism of "cynical commercialism". Awards: Special Award of the Jury and FIPRESCI award at the Berlin Festival, 1965.
- 1966 - Cul-De-Sac. Script written by Polański together with Gerard Brach. Seemingly a thriller. The life of a married couple (George and Teresa) living in a secluded castle is interrupted by the arrival of two gangsters, brought here by their own problems. The gangsters are waiting for the arrival of their mythical boss. Soon one of them, severely wounded, dies. The "cul-de-sac" applies both to the castle dwellers and to the criminals. Using black humour, Polański entertains the viewers with his favourite topic - the analysis of the relationship between the dominant and the subjugated. The characters' fight for domination is reduced to absurdity. Critics have pointed out the movie's kinship with Ionesco and Beckett. Awards: The Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, 1966.
- 1967 - Dance of the Vampires (the shortened version also called The Fearless Vampire Killers). Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach, and played Alfred, the professor's assistant. A brilliant parody of a classical vampire horror, the movie tells the story of a professor and his assistant, Alfred, seeking to destroy the ancient tribe of Transsylvanian vampires. Their adventures abound in funny as well as terrifying situations. Although the professor and Alfred fail to defeat the vampires, viewers should not leave the cinema terrified. Words of praise were said for Polański the actor and for Sharon Tate, Polański's then fiancée and playing Alfred's beloved.
- 1968 - Rosemary's Baby. Script written by Polański after a novel by Ira Levine. A young couple are expecting a child. The young woman, played by the delicate Mia Farrow, is a victim of perfidious cunning. She does not know that her husband, a member of a devil-worshipping sect, has signed a pact with the devil and that her baby will be devil's offspring. Viewers find out the truth gradually, learning about it from the woman's perspective and, like her, are suffused with lingering and seemingly unfounded fear. "Polański is not after sensational plots. What he wants is an engrossing, overpowering climate", writes Adam Garbicz in The Cinema: A Magic Vehicle. Rosemary's Baby was considered a innovative movie, Polański having achieved the climate of a horror using novel means. Awards: The French Film Critics' Association Award for the best foreign film, 1970.
- 1971 - Macbeth. Script written by Polański together with Kenneth Tynan. Another film based on Shakespeare's tragedy, after the movies by Welles and Kurosawa. Polański has cut the text short, gave up the poetic form, shifted the apportioning of guilt and changed the psychological portraits of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The first movie made after the murders of his wife and friends in Polański's house, it was found too gory by the critics, although the film's failure should be attributed to Polański's biographical context rather than to its faults.
- 1972 - Che? (What?). Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach and played the role of Mosquito. A frivolous movie made in Italy, this is a story of erotic adventures of a young hitchhiker stopping at a villa full of eccentric characters. Considered Polański's biggest disaster, the film was not redeemed by Marcello Mastroianni nor Polański as the buoyant Mosquito. Not shown in Poland.
- 1974 - Chinatown. Script by Robert Towne, with Polański playing the man with the knife who slits the detective's nose. Polański's return to the U.S. after his European failures proved fortunate. Chinatown is a movie of the traditional thriller genre with elements of pastiche, with a melancholic detective, a beautiful woman and a ruthless man. Step by step the plot unveils a corruption affair related to the construction of a river dam as well as gruesome, guarded family secrets. Superb acting by Jack Nicholson an Faye Dunaway. Major awards: The Oscar for the Best Screenplay, 1974; The Golden Globe for the best directed film, 1975; BAFTA Award for Jack Nicholson in the Best Actor category.
- 1976 - Le Locataire (The Tenant). Script by Polański and Gerard Brach based on a novel by Roland Topor, with Polański playing the part of Trelkovsky. After Repulsion, it is another study of a mental illness and Polański's favourite topic of the amazing pleasure that people take in tormenting others. Trelkovsky, a lonely émigré, does not realize the danger he is in when renting a flat in an old Parisian tenement. Soon he will commit suicide, just like the previous tenant, but first, driven into illness by other tenants, who, filled with xenophobia and dislike of foreigners and émigrés, he will masochistically submit to oppression.
- 1979 - Tess. Script by Polański, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn based on Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. A story of frustrated love, pain, wrongdoing, revenge and well-deserved punishment. Asked why he reached for a 19th-century novel, Polański answered that he wanted to talk about "the deepest, most important human feelings of which we have been ashamed for many years for fear of being called simpletons". While Tess, starring Nastassja Kinsky, usually gets classified as a melodrama, Mariola Dopartowa, an expert on Polański's work, has a point when identifying its more profound aspect of coming close to an ancient drama, manifesting itself especially in the movie's last sequence, that of the heroine's inevitable death. Awards: The Los Angeles Association of Film Critics' Award in the Best Director category, 1980; the Oscar Awards for the best cinematography, best set decoration and best costumes, 1980; BAFTA award for the best cinematography.
- 1986 - Pirates (the director co-wrote the script with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn). An adventure lacking in genre-specific dynamics, with slow narration and protagonists who fail to win the audience's sympathy. Found too gory for a movie targeted at teenagers.
- 1988 - Frantic (he co-wrote the script with Gerard Brach). Harrison Ford as a surgeon arriving in Paris for a medical conference fighting with his wife's kidnappers, gangsters and spies. A thriller which does not aspire to much and has a banal story, but with superb acting by Harrison Ford and photographs by Witold Sobocinski, the Polish director of photography.
- 1992 - Lunes De Fiel (Bitter Moon) (he co-produced and co-wrote of the script with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, after a novel by Pascal Bruckner). Two married couples are left with each other's company while on a ship journey. Like in many other of his films, Polański penetrates the murky areas of the human mind and analyses its penchant for cruelty, humiliation of others and perversion. The film tells the story of an attempt by the degenerate couple, its past full of mutual cruelty, to deprave the couple who, slightly bored, are an easy target to manipulate through sex.
- 1994 - Death and the Maiden (he co-wrote the script with the Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias, after Dorfman's play). A psychological drama set in South America. After the ruling regime has been democratically overthrown, the hunt for oppressors begins. The story of a meeting of the torturer and his victim has been staged in the manner of a thriller, with the usual suspense, mystery and an unexpected solution, skillfully telling a universal truth about the dark side of the human nature.
- 1999 - The Ninth Gate (producer and co-writer of the script together with Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn, after the novel Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverty). A horror in which a secondhand bookstore owner who traces rare books assumes the role of a detective looking for a book written by Lucifer and opening the gate to the Kingdom of Shadows. The film was found lacking in suspense and using stereotypes and cliches.
- 2002 - The Pianist (he co-wrote the script with Ronald Harwood, after Władysław Szpilman's memoirs). A true story of the pianist Władysław Szpilman hiding on the Arian side of Warsaw after the city's ghetto is closed down and the Warsaw Rising collapses. Lonely as a Robinson Crusoe in the city ruins, Szpilman - "a tragic lucky man", to use the words of the film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski - survives, helped by a music-loving German officer, while all his family and relatives perish. Szpilman's memoirs inspired a movie directed by Jerzy Zarzycki in 1951. The script, loosely based on the book and written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Czesław Miłosz under the title of The Robinson of Warsaw, turned politically unacceptable to the then authorities, and the changes that were made, including a new name, The Untamed Town, left it having nothing in common with the original, so much so that Miłosz withdrew his name from the credits.
Major awards: The Golden Palm at Cannes IFF 2002; Nomination to Felix (The European Film Award) in the Best Film and Best European Director categories; The Boston Film Critics Award in the Best Film category; The San Francisco Film Critics Award in the Best Film category; The American National Society of Film Critics Award in the Best Film and Best Director categories; The 2003 Cesar Award of the French Academy of Cinematic Art in the Best French Film and Best Director categories; The BAFTA Award in the Best Film and Best Director categories; The Goya Award of the Spanish Film Academy in the Best European Film category; The Polish Film Eagle Award in the Best Film and Best Direction categories; The Oscar Award of the American Academy of Film Art in the Best Director category and nomination in the Best Film category; The David di Donatello Italian Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.
- 2005 - Oliver Twist. Screen adaptation of the Charles Dickens' classic novel.
- 2010 - The Ghost Writer (co-writer of the script with Robert Harris). Screen adaptation of the Robert Harris' novel. Awards: 2010 - Silver Bear in the Best Director category at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.
- 2012 - Carnage. A screenplay adaptation of Yasmin Reza's stage play The God of Carnage, it's a hilarious take on societal prejudices, underlying aggressions and attempts to cover them up.
- 2013: Venus in Fur. Starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric, the film is an adaptation of the off-Broadway and Broadway play by David Ives of the same title. The plot revolves around the cat-and-mouse game between a director and an aspiring actress.
Roman Polański is also the co-author of the script of the film Do You Like Women? (1964), directed by Jean Leon, and the scriptwriter and producer of A Day at the Beach (1970), directed by Simon Hesara.
- Roman Polański appeared in films by other directors, including Jacek by Konrad Nałęcki, Three Stories (the role of the boy, Polański's acting debut); The Generation (Mundek), The Innocent Wizards (the basist), Samson, The Revenge (Papkin) by Andrzej Wajda; Just My Luck by Andrzej Munk (the coach); Pure Formality by Giuseppe Tornatore (the Inspector); Rush Hour 3 by Brett Ratner (detective Revi); Caos Calmo by Antonio Luigi Grimaldi (Steiner).
Roman Polański as theatre director:
- 1974 Lulu, opera by Alban Berg; 1976 Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi; three stagings of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer: Warsaw and Paris, 1981 (playing the main part in both productions), Milan, 1999; musical version of the Vampire Ball, Vienna, 1997.
Films about Roman Polański:
- Roman Polański: A Sentimental journey (1982), a biographical film by Wiktor Grodecki.
- Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (2012), by director Laurent Bouzereau
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn; filmography: Ewa Nawój, June 2003; filmography updated in February 2010. Updated by Marta Jazowska May 2012