The Jewish film director Roman Polanski turned 80 on August 18. I met him in Israel twice, and both times I felt a measure of tension, fear even. I cannot explain why, but something about Polanski, who is short in stature and sharp-featured, conveys severity mixed with irony, putting you immediately on the defensive.
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The first time we met, he reprimanded me. It was in 1979, when he came to Israel for a screening of his film “Tess,” which was based on “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy. A small press conference was held, and all went well until I asked why he had decided to dedicate the film to Sharon Tate, his late wife (who had been murdered 10 years before by the Manson “family” while she was heavily pregnant). The question angered him.
I don’t remember his exact response, but he raised his voice, demanding that I stop asking questions about his deceased wife. His body language conveyed that if I did not, he would cut short the event and leave the hall. I was scared; it was the first time I’d encountered such a hostile response from a film director. As far as I remember, I kept quiet until the press conference was over.
The next time I met him was in 2002. He came to Israel for a screening of his wartime film “The Pianist,” accompanied by the movie’s star, Adrien Brody. In honor of their visit, a cocktail party was held at the French Embassy, and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was one of the guests.
Polanski and Peres stood in the middle of the hall when someone - I don’t remember who - signaled me to approach and meet Polanski. In such a case, one doesn’t refuse, of course. I approached and was introduced to the director. We shook hands, and Polanski was informed that I had loved his film (to this day I believe that “The Pianist” is the best movie ever made about the memory of the Holocaust). Polanski looked at me sharply and said, “Why?” He put me on the spot, and I felt the silence in the room (even though there probably wasn’t silence). In that moment, all the reasons I felt “The Pianist” was such a masterpiece vanished from my mind. I stammered something - I have no idea what - and just remember how relieved I felt when, a few seconds later, someone else got the signal to come and meet the guest of honor, and I could withdraw to the sidelines.
Despite these two embarrassing meetings, I would like to meet Polanski again and have a serious interview with him, because I believe he is one of the best and most fascinating film directors of the past 50 years.
One feels close to some directors not only because of their talent - and I am certain Polanski is a master artist even whose weakest films are still blessed with virtuosically directed scenes - but also because of some additional element in their spirits that touches ours. To me, Polanski is such a director.
There are many reasons for this. The best directors are those who succeed in shaping the reality of their films in a way that shows their characters’ consciousness and inner world. Polanski is that kind of director. His best films - 1962’s “Knife in the Water,” his first full-length feature, “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “The Tenant,” “The Pianist,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Carnage,” and his latest, “Venus in Fur,” which was screened at the 2013 Cannes Festival and has not yet arrived in Israel — succeed in doing so.
To accomplish this goal, Polanski’s films are often about characters whose circumstances isolate them from their surroundings. Perhaps the most complex example of this is the second part of “The Pianist,” in which the protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody), feels increasingly isolated.
The entire memory of the Holocaust, as cinema is capable of depicting it, arises from his expression and the shaping of his awareness. The loneliness and isolation that Polanski’s protagonists feel impart a dreamy, hallucinatory and nightmarish feeling to his films.
The opening scenes of Polanski’s 1988 thriller “Frantic” are beautiful. An American physician and his wife (played by Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley) arrive in Paris for a vacation, tired and sleepy after their long flight. Polanski directs these scenes at the pace of a dream, which gives what happens later a weird allegorical nature that prevents the film from turning into a routine and fairly unrealistic suspense movie.
The concluding scenes of the film are also beautiful: Both the women in it, one older and one younger (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, who married Polanski in 1989 and is the mother of his two children), both in red dresses, alternate with each other at dawn on the banks of the River Seine in Paris, putting an end to the male fantasy at the center of the film.
I mention one of Polanski’s best films, “The Pianist,” and one of his supposedly lesser films, “Frantic,” because much of what attracts my interest stems from the journey his art has undergone over the past 50 years. The journey is a constant adventure that combines the experimental with the popular and mainstream, creating cinema that goes beyond those definitions.
And, of course, the journey has an autobiographical dimension of a life with a list of countless bumps in the road. Each one of them, until his arrest in 2009 when he arrived in Switzerland to receive a life achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, caused ripples throughout the world.
His is a life that has had little contentment, particularly in recent years, alongside his wife and family. The pain he carries, which is a major theme in his films, is never sentimental, but rather the sort that demands toughness and courage in coping with it, and whose consequences are often harsh. There are few happy endings in his films.
In this context, the spontaneous outbreak of laughter during the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony was wonderful when Polanski - who, of course, was not there due to the arrest warrants dating back to his 1978 statutory rape conviction in the United States - was named best director for “The Pianist,” against all odds. This was laughter that expressed not only surprise at his having won the award, but a recognition of the complexity, ambivalence and even irony that characterize his story and place in cinematic history.
Since its beginnings, Polanski’s cinema has searched for stability in a shaky, threatening and dangerous world. This stability is elusive most of the time, and sometimes it is just as dangerous. Even now, as Polanski turns 80, I still wait for each new film of his with great curiosity.
In his many movies over the decades, he has given the history of film a unique, courageous and personal quality that contemporary cinema would be poorer without. And he continues to do so.