An unforgettable interview with Roman Polanski; will he ever be exonerated?

                February 2010 By Philip Berk

The anticipation was palpable.

Finally a chance to interview the legendary Roman Polanski.

Earlier in the year, while working in Switzerland, he had been arrested and jailed for two months eventually placed under house arrest, until in July the Swiss government rejected the US request  to extradite him, and he was released a free man in defiance of the Los Angeles district attorney who had reopened the (child molestation) case against him.

At the Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris we waited for arrival.

Would he set limits as to what we might ask him.

Would he consider returning to LA to clear his name?

All these were on everyone’s lips.

Until finally the moment arrived. Looking fit and youthful, he sat down to talk to us, unusually relaxed, happy to be there, and open to any question:

As a young filmmaker making those early experimental films in Poland, were there films of other directors that had an impact on you?

“Of course there were many. One of them was Hamlet by Laurence Olivier, but in the same period, maybe because it was an important period in my life, when I was about 14, another film was Odd Man Out by Carol Reed with James Mason. That is a fabulous movie. That film was so important for me that I‘m virtually trying to redo this movie each time I make one. At the time I was living in Krakow – it was during the Communist period and still under Stalin.  It was grey and it was rainy or snowy or foggy and I saw it all in that film.  The film happens in less than 24 hours, maybe 12 hours or something like that.  You always see those clocks or watches and you know how the time progresses.  These were all elements that attracted me, and for years I would revisit it from time to time.  The first time was when I was in London doing Repulsion and they were playing it in one of those art houses, and I went to see it trembling. I was afraid that I would be disappointed, but the film was still fantastic, and I  still wonder what makes me like this film.  Why did it have such an impact on me, and then suddenly around that time I understood — it’s about a fugitive.  I was a fugitive from the ghetto, and when I saw it ten or fifteen years later I could identify with the role that James Mason plays in this film.” 

Having lived in France so many years — by accident he was born here — does he see France as his home?

“All during my childhood my parents talked a lot about Paris, about France because they met here and that’s where I was born; so it became to me some kind of a mythical place. I always wanted  to go to Paris but, of course, under the Communist regime you were not allowed even to go to Czechoslovakia. But then came the 20th Congress of the Communist Party with Khrushchev denouncing Stalin’s crimes, and a lot of things changed in Poland.  Suddenly people were allowed to visit their family. My sister had gone straight from the concentration camp back to Paris.  She had been in Auschwitz where my mother died, and suddenly I got a letter from my sister.  We started writing to each other, and I was allowed to get a passport. I was three months in Paris.  I was around twenty then, maybe less, maybe younger, and it was so incredible, so that when I finally left Poland for good, I went to Paris. I always wanted to live here.”

America was never your dream?

“At the beginning I was not much interested in America except for the movies. Of course, I loved some American movies, but I loved the Italian movies; neo-realism was so important when I was going to the film school in Lodz.  We couldn’t wait to see the next film of De Sica or Visconti or Rossellini. Roma Citta Aperta, all those.  It was fantastic and, by the way, what has happened to those poor Italians! (he jokes.) And of course I knew the old French films, but I have to tell you that during the Communist period hardly any foreign movies were brought to Poland.  Russian movies, from time to time a Czech movie, and some French.  American films practically none. I was lucky right after the war, thanks to UNRRA, there were some food and some films.  And after having seen only Polish, German, Russian, Soviet  movies, seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood, you can imagine what  a thrill it was — we saw that film endless times. But when I went to the film school, it was different.  There were no more American films.  Except Citizen Kane, thank God  we saw it in film school, where we could occasionally see American movies. Of course everything was nationalized and under strict censorship. The Minister of Culture received copies of films that they would run to decide whether they were going to purchase that film or not.  They were hardly purchasing any American films, but because the Ministry of Culture was closely connected to the film school, they gave us copies of the rejected films; so we were privileged to see all those films which were unavailable to a regular citizen. For the general public it was mostly French films, which you could see in the cinemas. We saw Fan Fan la Tulipe and Les Enfants du Paradis, all the good interesting French films, a lot of French comedies. So I really wanted to go there, although France after the war, France of the late-50’s and early-60’s, was an entirely different place than it is now.  It was still the France of men in berets, Basques and baguette, the plain baguette. I was very much brought up culturally here. I met all film-makers of the period. That was a period of the nouvelle vague so of course I met Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and before I did my first film, I was hanging around with them for some time.”

After the success of Knife in the Water, were you an instant celebrity?

“Success is important, but there’s a bit of a myth in this importance.  I was struggling so much before Knife in the Water and even after having made the film. It had been so badly received in Poland particularly by the officials; the Secretary of the Communist Party — our Prime Minister Gomulka — threw an ashtray at the screen when they ran it for him in his projection room; so I left Poland, came to France and I was really struggling here, trying to do something here. I wrote all my first scripts with Gerard Brach, a French screenwriter, but nobody was really interested and then they sent Knife in the Water to the festival in Venice, the Venice Film Festival, and it won the Critics  Prize there, and then it went to the first New York Film Festival. It was in New York, where I was invited, that I started feeling that first success.  It was that first smell of success that took me to Hollywood, to the Academy Awards, and I think well, maybe something will come out of it, and indeed something did. There were two executives of Century Fox, one sent me tickets to go to New York.  They had some proposition for me. It was fantastic. Yes, success works, I thought, so I went to New York, and their proposition was to redo Knife in the Water.  I took the first plane back to France, and I struggled for another two years, working with Gerard Brach, until I met Jean Goutansky a Polish-American producer who was living in London. He brought me to London, and I finally managed to do Repulsion.  Its success allowed me to do Cul De Sac which was slightly on the porno side, which was what they wanted, but something more ambitious. If your film fails it’s very difficult to get your next one made.  If your film is successful, it’s less difficult, but I can’t say that success really  opens doors for you.” 

Would you have had a different career if you had continued to work in Hollywood?  

“Oh, certainly it would have been different.  There is no question, I mean everything makes you different.  Whatever you eat makes you different. Today Hollywood and Europe are practically the same because the entire planet is much more international.  This is the natural progression, but in those times when I did my first film in Hollywood, there was greater difference in the technology; the Hollywood studio was a real movie machine. So going there allowed me to do things that I could not have done here.”

What was that first experience like?

“Rosemary’s Baby was my first film in Hollywood; it was very important for me to do that. A lot of European directors went there and broke their legs, but I knew how to drive that complicated big machine; If you know it, you can really do great things with it.  That was my feeling when I was making that film.  Same thing with Chinatown.  I had great help from Robert Evans, from the studio, from all the technicians, but now you can find great technicians here.  Every piece of equipment you have in a Hollywood studio you have here; so it doesn’t matter as much now as it did then. And in answer to your question, I would say, ‘Wherever I would go I would be different  – doing my film not in Paris but in Marseilles it would be different.”   

Speaking of Rosemary’s Baby, a film that scared the life out of me when I first saw it because I interpreted it as a realistic portrayal of a Catholic girl’s paranoia resulting from her practicing birth control. Is that what he intended?

Absolutely.  Absolutely, because, as you know, all those supernatural things are very much remote from me, and when I read the book, I found it a tremendously exciting idea for a movie but it bothered me that in the book there is that part of the real devil or not, and I made the film in such way that everything that happens could really happen, the dream in which she gets pregnant, all that could have been organized by those crazy witches living on the same floor; so there was definitely that approach that I took from the beginning. That’s why you never see anything supernatural in the film.  At the end  there is three frames of the eyes that she saw in her dream, but we never see the baby.  It remains ambiguous or ambivalent. It could be one way or the other.  For someone insisting on a supernatural interpretation of a real devil, etc., he can do it just as people do in real life with these things.” 

 P.S. We ended up being more intrigued by his films than his personal life

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