Gore Vidal wrote in 2007 that “to speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous—no matter how well known he may be personally to the press?—if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality?” The same could be said of the famous “art” director in our fractured, specialized film culture. Being a public intellectual in the 21st century just isn’t what it used to be. But how many consciously highbrow filmmakers have been more famous—or notorious—than Roman Polanski? As the release of Carnage, Polanski’s 19th feature, approaches (it will open this month’s New York Film Festival and open theatrically soon after), MOMA screens the other 18, allowing a new look at one survivor in this endangered species.
Polanski’s biography is a history of his times. He escaped the Krakow Ghetto before his voice had broken and, largely fending for himself, survived the liquidation of the Polish Jews. This was the beginning of a life that would be—often tragically—epochal. Polanski once opined, “I am a toy in the hands of history.” But this small, unlikely, vulpine man launched himself onto the world stage with extraordinary will.
In the ’50s, Polanski learned his craft from the Lodz Film School and cultivated a sense of the absurd behind the Iron Curtain. As an arriviste in ’60s Hollywood, Polanski was a rock star: He had a hit in Rosemary’s Baby, wore his hair over his collar, talked about taking LSD, and was photographed topless with wife Sharon Tate. When the pregnant Tate was slaughtered in their Bel Air home at the command of another intense little man with a gift for impressing his vision upon others, Polanski became tabloid news. And after Chinatown (1974) re-established Polanski in Hollywood—he campaigned for the tragic ending, as he always seemed to—Roman was on the run again in 1978, after raping a minor. Chronicler of abusive power relations, Polanski proved very much the physician who could not heal himself.
Polanski’s talent is too restless (and sometimes, admittedly, unfocused) to be easily capsulated. His filmography includes out-and-out fantasies (1967’s Fearless Vampire Killers) and a series of adaptations (1971’s Macbeth, 1979’s Tess, and 2005’s Oliver Twist) that put the director’s modern pessimism in conversation with the authors’ various conceptions of “destiny.”
Polanski’s reputation, though, was made on a series of suspense films hemmed in by claustrophobic locations. Debut feature Knife in the Water (1962), Polanski’s visa out of Poland, concerns macho brinkmanship aboard a sailboat between a young hitchhiker and an established older author. Both Repulsion (1965) and American breakthrough Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are studies of disintegrating psyches in increasingly oppressive living spaces. The Tenant (1976) continues the motif, with Polanski starring as the new arrival in an apartment haunted by the obscure hieroglyph remnants of its previous owner, an Egyptologist who committed suicide.
That lunatic, flagrantly noncommercial film makes extraordinary use of clammy Parisian locations—who can see the Jardin du Luxembourg after The Tenant without recalling Polanski fragile and bundled in his coat among empty chairs?—and began a fruitful, fretful dialogue with the city, his home in exile. The flagrantly commercial 1987 Harrison Ford vehicle Frantic showed a new Paris, distinctly of its moment, in skintight Euro trash digs. Bitter Moon (1992) saw Polanski return to that skeevy, nocturnal city—and sexual angst on the high seas—with a perverse and hysterical dare of a movie. Pilloried upon release, Bitter Moon foregrounds the director’s wicked sense of humor as he prods his audience’s sexual discomfiture. It’s Polanski all the way: hambone Satanist, born raconteur, menace to propriety.
Or at least, one facet of Polanski. With 2002’s The Pianist, Polanski performed again for a wide public, for the first time speaking directly as historical witness. The film was adapted from fellow Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, but it’s stamped all over with its director’s character: the deteriorating situation of the city’s Jews portrayed as tragicomedy; the idea of isolation as an essential aspect of existence, even in the midst of historical catastrophe. “It’s a funny time to say this,” offers Adrien Brody’s character to his sister, boarding a train to Treblinka, “but I wish I’d known you better.” From his own sense-memory, Polanski rebuilds the ghetto where Brody’s civilized interpreter of Chopin begins his gradual degradation into a mute, shambling tramp, a clown somewhere between Chaplin and Beckett—his transformation a history of 20th-century art, born among the ruins of the 19th.