This Day in Jewish History

Roman Polanski Is Born, World Will Develop Mixed Feelings

Genius director survived the Holocaust, wowed Hollywood - and now makes his movies outside the U.S., where Roman Polanski is wanted on rape charges.

Reuters

August 18, 1933, is the birthdate of filmmaker Roman Polanski. In an ongoing feature-making career that has spanned more than half a century, and with a dramatic personal biography that has ranged from the tragic to the outrageous and even criminal, Polanski is undoubtedly one of the film world’s most compelling figures.

Rajmund Roman Thierry Polaski was born in Paris, where his Polish-born parents were then living. His father, a Jew who had changed his name from Mojesz Liebling to Ryszard Polaski, was an artist and entrepreneur; his half-Jewish mother was the former Bula Katz-Przedborska.

Watching movies through the ghetto wall

In a case of unusually unfortunate judgment, the family returned to Krakow, Poland, in 1936. When the Germans occupied Poland, three years later, they, like other Jewish residents of Krakow, were confined to the city’s ghetto. From there, Roman’s pregnant mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.

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His father was dispatched to the Mauthausen camp - but managed to shoo Roman away when the boy tried to accompany him during his arrest.

Roman survived by his wits, and with the help of a Roman Catholic family his father knew, who gave him a false identity as one of their children.

Ryszard survived the war too, and was reunited with Roman, who now resumed life, as an adolescent in communist Poland – who was already obsessed with cinema. His love for the movies , and everything about them, had begun while he was very young: it continued even within the Krakow Ghetto, where he found a vantage point from which he could watch German newsreels being screened for the local populace in the marketplace outside the ghetto.

Polanski was a successful actor before attending film school in Lodz in the 1950s. After shooting a number of shorts, his first feature, “Knife in the Water,” became the first Polish film to be nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, in 1963 (it lost to Fellini’s “8 ½”).

Enter Charles Manson

That helped open the world of international cinema to Polanski, who spent the years 1965-67 in London, making three features. It was during the filming of the last of those, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” that he met a young actress, Sharon Tate, whom he married in January 1968.

REX

The couple moved to Los Angeles, Polanski made “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) - and the following summer, when Tate was eight and a half months pregnant, she and four guests were brutally murdered in their home by the cult leader Charles Manson.

Polanski was devastated by the crime, and by his having been absent when it occurred. He was also wounded by his treatment by the media: until Manson and his gang were apprehended, it was strongly implied that he, the bereaved husband, had been indirectly involved in the murders.

Polanski has described the years that followed as very difficult, but he did resume filmmaking. In 1974, he made what may be his most acclaimed movie, “Chinatown,” whose 10 Oscar nominations included one for best director.

Fleeing the U.S.

By his own account, Polanski has always been attracted to very young women, and has had relationships with women many decades younger than him. When he photographed 13-year-old Samantha Geimer for French Vogue in 1977, in the course of which he drugged her and had sex with her, he found himself arrested for statutory rape and other more severe charges, including rape with the use of drugs. 

In a plea bargain, Polanski confessed to the lesser charges, and was admitted to a California state prison for a psychiatric evaluation, as part of a deal that would have spared him any additional prison time. But when the judge in the case revealed that he had changed his mind, and was planning to send Polanski back to prison, the director fled the U.S.

Thus, Polanski has been a fugitive from American justice since February 1, 1978, successfully avoiding extradition. But, he continues making movies, including “Tess” (1979), “The Pianist” (2002 - for which he won the directing Oscar), “The Ghostwriter” (2010) and “Carnage” (2011).

Polanski’s most recent release was “Venus in Fur” (2013), based on the play by David Ives. Now, at age 82, he is said to be in pre-production for a movie based on Robert Harris’ 2013 novel “An Officer and a Spy,” about the Dreyfus Affair.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen