The Autobiographical Effect in the Cinema of Roman Polanski

Article excerpt

Polanski's life and work on both sides of the Berlin Wall and in the Old and the New Worlds seems to cohere into nothing more or less than a demented imago of the latter half of the 20th century. The fact that somewhere along the way this man has made some films seems to beggar the question. Perhaps the only surprise is that he has never been asked to helm his own auto-bio-pic.

Michael Eaton

It is a commonplace to say that Roman Polanski's life has provoked as much interest as his cinema, given the proliferation of biographies and newspaper articles devoted to his life. More importantly, rarely are the films he directs or his performances analysed separately from his biography. For example, Harlan Kennedy asks: "Why does Bitter Moon work?" and answers "Because it's not so much by Polanski in crisis as about Polanski in crisis" (14). A distinguished Polish critic, Aleksander Jackiewicz, discussing Polanski's performance as Mozart in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus in Na Woli theatre in Warsaw, claims: "Polanski ... playing Mozart, also plays himself: an artist who follows his intuition and instinct. As an actor, even in film, he was always an amateur ... He behaves now as in his youth: mystifying himself and others, changing the world which surrounds him into a circus" (269). The suggestion of an important connection between Polanski's personal experience and the content of his films is present even in the titles of reviews of his films, such as "A Tess for child molestors" (Marcus 1981).

I will list several intertwined reasons explaining this unrelenting interest in Polanski as a real person and in the relationship between his films and his life. First, Polanski is not only a director but also an actor in his own films, as well as in the films and plays of other artists, thereby making his face more familiar than that of directors who remain behind the camera. According to Polanski's biographers, he was always also an actor in the fundamental sense: someone who likes to perform, to be known and admired by the crowds. He started his career as a child actor in the Theatre for Young Viewers, on the radio, and in the Cracow puppet theatre. However, as Barbara Learning maintains, "For Romek the real show was in the Cracow Market Square ... Romek began to perform in the square, spinning out stories, cruelly mimicking passersby, attracting attention in whatever way he could ... He was little, loud and aggressive. But, whatever the reaction, Romek became a well-known street person, a familiar sight" (20).

The urge to perform not only in theatre or in cinema but in life as well is also confirmed by one of his oldest and closest friends, Rene Nowak, who recollects Polanski's attraction to quarrels and hullabaloos and his unrelenting need to be the center of everybody's attention (Piekarczyk 14-15). For his early student film, Rozbijemy zabawe (Let's Break the Ball, 1957), he first arranged to film the annual student dance at Lodz, then invited a group of local thugs to beat up the unsuspecting students in order to make the reaction of his actors as authentic as possible (Leaming 32; Stachowna 34). This "performing" side of Polanski's career and personality, while allowing the public to have almost direct access to him, at the same time makes it difficult to establish who the "real" Polanski is, to separate the mask from the person, or force us to concede that in his case the performer and the private person are indistinguishable--the mask is the man.

The second reason why the "real" Polanski fascinates the public is the perception that his biography is more unusual than that of most filmmakers. Three periods of his life draw particular attention. The first is his childhood. Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, but in 1936 he came with his Jewish parents to Poland, his father's homeland (Polanski's mother was a Russian Jew). Soon after the war broke out, his parents were taken to concentration camps: mother to Auschwitz, where she perished, father to Mauthausen. …