The Jewish Spine of Roman Polanski's Films

In honor of his 80th birthday, Haaretz takes a look at the films of the revered Polish-French-Jewish director and Holocaust survivor.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Born August 18, 1933, Polish-French-Jewish film director Roman Polanski has had a checkered and varied film career. He has made many movies, set in various locations and covering a variety of countries, with a visible Jewish spine running throughout his body of work. Although Polanski and his father escaped extermination, his mother died in Auschwitz. Growing up during, and living through, the Holocaust, Polanski's awareness of his Jewish identity has had a significant effect on his films.

His first openly Jewish film was "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (Dance of the Vampires) in 1967. A comedy-horror, it featured possibly the first explicitly Jewish vampire, Shagal the Inn-Keeper, played by Alfie Bass. When a young woman tries to fend him off with a cross, he points out, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.” Shagal’s name may well have been influenced by the painter Marc Chagall, whose shtetl paintings may have inspired the backdrop for the film, Polanski’s first in color. Polanski also acted in the film.

The following year, in 1968, Polanski maintained the horror theme by adapting Ira Levin’s novel "Rosemary’s Baby" (1967). The film has very little explicit Jewishness, apart from a couple of supporting characters. However, it introduced a new genre in which secular and agnostic Jews, taking advantage of the changes in Hollywood - in particular the loosening of the Production Code - used the horror genre to grapple with the nature of evil in a post-Holocaust world. This was also done by Stanley Kubrick in "The Shining" (1980).

In 1976, Polanski based his film "The Tenant" on a 1964 novel by Roland Topor who was, like Polanski, a French writer of Polish-Jewish origin. In addition to directing the movie, Polanski starred in the role of a Polish immigrant living in Paris. It also starred Shelley Winters, who had previously played two memorable and explicitly Jewish characters, Mrs. Van Daan in the Oscar-winning "The Diary of Anne Frank" (dir. George Stevens, 1959) and Belle Rosen in "The Poseidon Adventure" (dir. Ronald Neame, 1972).

In 1999, he directed "The Ninth Gate," an occult thriller starring Johnny Depp. In many ways, this film embedded Jewish themes on a subtextual level, like his earlier "Rosemary’s Baby." In so doing, it mirrored Kubrick’s "Eyes Wide Shut," which came out the same year.

While all films can be said to have an autobiographical trace, "The Pianist" (2002) is perhaps the film that most closely matches Polanski’s own life. An adaptation of the World War Two autobiography of the same name by Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman, the film recounted Szpilman's (Adrien Brody) experiences as a persecuted Jew in Poland during the Holocaust. Like Szpilman, Polanski escaped the concentration camps, but his family did not.

Watching The Pianist, especially those parts depicting Szpilman’s time on the run, hiding in various flats, one recognizes that the movie provides the template for his earlier horror trilogy, also known as the apartment films, "Repulsion" (1965), "Rosemary’s Baby," and "The Tenant." The claustrophobia of their respective protagonists, women confined to their apartments, not knowing whom to trust, obligated to stay silent out of mortal terror of the neighbors, and living or dying on the basis of whom they choose to trust, echoes Polanski’s own experiences.

Polanksi followed up his Holocaust movie with "Oliver Twist" (2005), an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name, itself controversial for its central figure of the criminal Fagin (played by Ben Kingsley). Many have accused Fagin of embodying deep anti-Semitic stereotypes. As strange a decision as it might seem to adapt such a novel, perhaps Polanski was motivated by a desire to “rescue” Fagin.

His choice of Ben Kingsley to play the character of Fagin may back up that interpretation, given his previous roles playing Jews such as Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List" (1993). Polanski also stated once during an interview that he made the movie because the life of the young eponymous scavenger reflected his own life, fending for himself on the streets of Poland during the Nazi occupation.

Finishing off the Jewish theme – for now – is Polanski’s "D." Currently in production, D focuses on the Dreyfus Affair, that notorious cause celebre in which a French Jewish officer in the highly anti-Semitic French military was accused of passing secrets to the Germans, court martialed, and deliberately convicted of treason even though he was innocent, and sent to a penal colony. If this is to be Polanski’s last film, it will be a significant and interesting choice for him to bow out on, perhaps expressing his own ambivalence as - at least partially - a French Jew.

Director Roman Polanski attending a news conference for the film 'La Venus a la Fourrure' at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, May 25, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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