In September Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland. He faces
extradition to the US, having fled the States in 1978 to avoid being
sentenced for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The debate
about the case has raged ever since. Martin Amis was the first writer
to interview Polanski after his flight, meeting him in Paris in 1979
for a magazine article. Here, we publish the encounter in full
6 December 2009
When I was being driven to the police station from the hotel, the car
radio was already talking about it. The newsmen were calling the
police before I was arrested to see whether they can break the news.
I couldn't believe… I thought, you know, I was going to wake up from
it. I realise, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so
much appeal to the press, you see? But… fucking, you see, and the
young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck
young girls everyone wants to fuck young girls! No, I knew then,
this is going to be another big, big thing."
"It could never happen to me" is the sort of remark that Roman
Polanski will never have cause to utter. If strange things are going
to happen, he is the kind of man they will happen to. Despite his
reputation as a fixer, an ecstatic, thick-skinned bully-boy, he has,
in many respects, always been fortune's fool. When he talks
enthusiastically, and perhaps a little sentimentally, about all the
promise, flair and freedom of the 1960s, it strikes you that there is
no more conspicuous victim of the abysmal ironies of that decade. For
him the 1960s were years of high energy and achievement, ending (as,
in a sense, they ended for everybody else) on 9 August 1969, with the
bloody murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His period of
recovery was then marked by constant, and hatefully insulting,
stories in the press, explaining how Mr and Mrs Polanski had opened
the door to their own nemesis (by experimenting with drugs,
decadence, weird rituals, etc). It wasn't his first experience of
inordinate suffering and inordinate humiliation. And now, 10 years
later, he finds himself in an altogether different kind of mess.
I went first to his airy, Hockneyesque, definitively bijou flat,
between the Champs-Elysées and the Seine. There can be few smarter
apartment blocks in Paris: Marlene Dietrich used to have a floor of
it, and so does some deserving member or other of the Pahlavi family
[the dynasty that ruled Iran until 1979]. I waited for a few minutes
in the bookless drawing-room, Polanski's agile manservant asking me
if I would prefer my glass of beer with or without a head of foam. I
went with the foam, and never regretted it. Then Polanski strolled
promptly out of his bedroom, wearing tailored jeans and a monogrammed
blue shirt. At five foot four, and with great liveliness of gait and
gesture, he seems to be about 16 years old. This impression didn't go
away, even after several hours in his company. It occurred to me that
his considerable and well-documented success with women has a lot to
do with that fact. Contemplating little Roman, women wouldn't so much
sense the appeal of being worked over by a priapic, trouble-shooting
film director; they would just want to take the poor waif upstairs
and have him sob himself to sleep in their arms.
Looking 16, of course, does not entitle you to go to bed with
adolescents. Despite what Polanski says contra Polanski not
everyone wants to fuck young girls. One cannot hide behind a false
universality: one cannot seek safety in numbers. Most people who do
want to fuck young girls, moreover, don't fuck young girls. Not
fucking apparently willing young girls is clearly more of a
challenge. But even Humbert Humbert realised that young girls don't
really know whether they are willing or not. The active paedophile is
stealing childhoods. Polanski, you sense, has never even tried to
"You drinking beer?" he asked with routine incredulity. His voice is
vaulting, declamatory, not only accented but heavily accentual in style.
"That's right," I said. "In his piece about you Kenneth Tynan says
that you hardly drink at all. Is that…?"
"Ah Ken Tynan full of shit," he said, turning and pacing round the
room. "I drink a lot of wine last night, as a matter of fact… But now
I'm very hungry."
We had lunch in a noisy German restaurant round the corner. Polanski
eats as hectically as he talks. "Here, have some harring no
harring, herring… This is lovely you want some?… Here, I prepare
you good little portion, some onion on top there!" He is pointed at
and murmured about by the other diners, and affectionately fawned on
by the immaculate waiters. He is one of those people who can shout
for service without giving offence: if he hollers for a beer it is
because he must have that beer, and must have it now.
According to press reports, Polanski met with a cool reception in
Paris after his escape from America in early 1978 ("I have not
contacted him and I'm not going to," said Joseph Losey. "A coward's
way out. The ranks are closing against him," said Robert Stack). Well
aware of his catastrophe-prone nature, he is finding Paris a good
place to keep out of harm's way. "It's very grown-up here," he says,
adding, in one of the bursts of mangled eloquence that occasionally
escape his rusty, staccato, always endearing English: "I'm trying to
extenuate those contrasts in my character that make me stick out as a
sore thumb from my surroundings." (Love that "as".) He is determined
to return to America, despite the remote possibility of a 50-year
jail sentence, for the alleged drugging and raping of the 13-year-old
girl. "But they have made me very welcome in Paris and I'm going to
stay for some while. Unless something happens."
After all, he was born here, in 1933.
The first few years of his life were relatively free of disaster. In
1936 his family returned to Cracow. As a child, Polanski saw
barricades being erected at the end of the street: the Nazis were
closing off the ghetto. In 1941 both his parents were taken into
concentration camps. Just before the ghetto was finally overrun,
Polanski escaped through a gap in the barbed wire. "One day, outside
the ghetto, I saw people marching in a column, guarded by Germans. My
father was among them. I walked alongside for a while but he gestured
for me to run away. He survived four years in a camp but that was
the last time I saw him." His mother died in Auschwitz.
Polanski's youth continued to be marked by near misses. He was
brought up by Catholic peasants in the remote Polish countryside. Out
blackberrying one day, he was casually shot at by German soldiers
"like I am a squirrel or something". Back in liberated Cracow in
1945, the only bomb dropped during one of the last German air-raids
blew him through a lavatory door, injuring his left arm. At the age
of 16, as an art student in Cracow, he was led into an underground
bunker by a friend of a friend who proposed to sell the young Roman a
racing bicycle. "I always wanted a racing bicycle." He described what
followed very vividly, in his thoughtful anapaests, leaning forward
and parting his hair to show you the scars on his crown.
"I was walking in the tunnel, you know. He was behind me. He was
behind me. I kept saying, 'But where is the bicycle, sir?' Then I
thought I get a sudden electric shock, thought I touch a cable or
something or I thought there was some other attacker down there. I
couldn't believe the man was hitting me on the head." But he was,
with a rock, five times. Polanski's assailant, apprehended that day,
had already committed three murders. When he staggered out of the
bunker, Polanski had so much blood pouring from him that he still
feels a tremor of dread every time he steps under a shower.
And, despite his multinational successes, Polanski's life has never
shaken free of the grotesque and calamitous. Over the years at least
half a dozen of his close friends and associates have met with
violent and unlikely deaths suicides, strange illnesses, a freak
train accident. It is by now a cliche to say of Polanski that his
films, with their emphasis on terror, isolation and madness, seem no
more than a demonic commentary on his life. But such an impression is
unavoidable in the light of the atrocious events at Cielo Drive in
1969. Polanski, you'd have thought, has endured enough for 20 lifetimes.
"Of course, my life has been very strange, full of strange things.
But it does not look like that to me, you know from my side. My
life is just something I live, you see. Only when I stand back do I
see how strange it has been."
At one ironic remove, this is the character Polanski plays in his
infrequent appearances in his own films. He has low regard for actors
("The intelligent actor is a rarity, almost a paradox") and has few
pretensions about his own abilities in front of the camera: "I only
use me because I'm cheap and give no trouble. I'm so nice to work
with, you know? I always do what I tell me to." In fact, he is an
actor of narrow range but perfect pitch: he has an unwavering feel
for the comedy and pathos of vulnerability. In his two most memorable
roles as the jittery vampire-hunter in Dance of the Vampires and as
the effaced, wide-open Polish clerk in The Tenant Polanski
portrays, with authentic sympathy, the little man to whom strange
things happen. In those films the little man half-expects strange
things to happen to him, and responds to them with obedient,
uncomplaining horror as long as they last. He seems to believe that
if these strange things weren't happening to him, then other strange
things would be happening to him instead.
I was reminded of this persona several times during lunch, most
particularly when Polanski described his recent prison term in
connection with the "rape" case in Los Angeles. Reluctantly at first,
later in a spirit of great hilarity, with painful whimpers of
delighted recollection, he told me how his six-week incarceration began.
"When I arrived in the middle of the night, I couldn't get in to the
goddamn prison! There were too many journalists and cameras there!
And all the prisoners in yard because they hear it on the news,
saying, 'Hey, how y'doing, Planski!' But it was like a vacation, a
sanctuary. It was terrific. I wouldn't mind to go back now, now I
know what it's like. It is interesting to go on the other side, where
bad people are. Full of incredible murderers! There was someone who
kill 16 people." He nods, adding more quietly, and with resignation:
"That is the trouble you never know when people going to stab you,
you know? That's the only problem, is that you can just get killed any time."
The quality of resignation, of stretched stoicism, was perhaps what
drew Polanski to the character of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Called
simply Tess, the latest Polanski offering opened in France late last
year, with encouraging critical and commercial success. It is a
respectful, perhaps over-faithful, certainly over-long and generally
flawed piece of work. The difficulty of the film (as in another sense
it is the difficulty of the book) concerns the character of Angel
Clare, the supposedly adorable foil to Tess's swinish seducer, Alec
d'Urberville. The point is that Hardy plays on these melodramatic
contrasts (Angel strumming his harp in the attic, Alec glimpsed
through flames carrying a pitchfork), while making it clear that
Angel is more subtly despicable than Alec could ever be. Polanski was
aware of the ambiguity, though I don't think he ever resolved it.
"Yes, let's talk about films. Films are my sector, my 'cup of tea',
as they say in England." He looks up in wonder.
"I think I'm going to have a cigar. You want one?… What drew me to
the character of Tess was her incredible integrity combined with her
submission? No, submissiveness and her fatalism. She never
complains. All these very… unfair things happen to her, and she never
complains until the end. The book is more morally complicated than
you at first think. Alec had a cold, materialistic approach to life,
but he is not too bad by today's standards."
"And what do you think of Angel?"
"Oh, Angel to me is a complete shit. He represents to me very much
the young man full of revolutionary ideals, but as soon as it affects
him personally he turns out to be as hypocritical as everyone else."
I was obliged to say at this point that the casting of Peter Firth as
Angel seemed to be questionable. In fact it is disastrous. Angel must
appear to have the attributes of a romantic lead. The vulgar truth is
that Peter Firth would be fine if he looked more like Robert Redford
and less like Jimmy Carter. Polanski shrugged and disagreed, showing
no more than mild disappointment. But it was with shared relief that
we went on to praise Nastassja Kinski's wonderfully steady
performance as Tess. Polanski spoke of her with affectionate
admiration and with a little self-consequence: she is a protege of
his and, naturally, also an ex.
I asked him which of his films he liked most. "Films are like women,"
I was informed (Polanski thinks quite a few things are like women).
"You always love the last most until the next one comes along.
"But of course there are films for which you have a special feeling.
Some of my most praised films Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, The
Tenant were largely matters of convenience, done because of time or
money or to accommodate a certain producer. I wouldn't have choosen
them, you know? But my head tells me that Cul-de-sac is my best film
it is the film that is the most self-contained. It only has meaning
as a movie, as itself. My heart tells me that The Vampire Killers [an
early title for Dance of the Vampires] is my favourite. I get more
fond of that film every year. I suppose I am reliving my happiness at
the time of making it. It was towards the end of the 1960s. Everyone
was full of hope and good spirits. I was making a comedy with people
I liked, and of course with Sharon… But Tess is very dear to me now.'
It would be rash to try to make up your mind about someone like
Polanski. He is something of a ranter, his speech dotted with showbiz
cliches ("Jack Nicholson he is a great professional") and
self-consciously quotable tags ("I like food, I like women, and best
of all I like women who like food" etc, etc). But there is a great
deal that is generous, natural, even transparent, about him. His
confidence, for example, is a real thing, and not the grinning
shambles that often passes for confidence in the film world. Clearly
he has sometimes gone too far into the gratifications that his
fast-lane milieu offers him, as the case in California amply
demonstrates. But he has survived an extraordinary life, and is still himself.
After lunch he invited me to his cutting-room on the Champs-Elysées,
where he is preparing Tess for the English and American versions. It
was a gloomy flat, full of gloomy, Gitane-smoking Frenchmen. Polanski
spent 20 minutes cutting half a second out of a reaction-shot to a
fresh stage in Tess's doleful decline. I asked him if he was worried
that the film might be mistakenly regarded as a blow for women's liberation.
"What? Tess responds appropriately to events, and as an individual.
Women's lib is an absurdity! A few just postulates do not make a
movement just. How can one half of the species organise against the
other half? There's not anyone who said at certain time, 'That's the
way women behave.' Things are the way they are because of evolution!
This is the way it is between monkeys, between dogs and between butterflies!"
"What about spiders?"
"Spiders, mm," he said, nodding and looking serious. "No, male
spiders don't have a good time. Maybe they should get together and do
something about it. I don't know."
Polanski vs. the law - 1979-2009
It was on 26 September 26, as he travelled from France to receive a
lifetime achievement award at the Zurich film festival, that Roman
Polanski was detained by Swiss police at Zurich airport.France
refused to extradite Polanski With dual French-Polish citizenship,
Polanski had settled in Paris and lived and worked there, unhampered,
for the last 31 years. He travelled freely in European countries
where he felt safe, including Switzerland, where he has a home. He
made eight more films, including The Pianist, which won him an Oscar
for best director (he accepted it via satellite) and was finishing
The Ghost, an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel, at the time of his arrest.
Although he felt secure living in France, the case had continued to
haunt him. In 1988, Samantha Geimer sued Polanski for the assault.
They settled out of court in 1993 and she forgave him publicly 10
years later. Last year, the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and
Desired unearthed evidence suggesting the judge in the original
criminal case had acted illegally.
The Zurich arrest, which was requested by the US, created
international controversy. France's culture minister, Frédéric
Mitterrand, was especially condemnatory, citing Polanski's "difficult
life" as an extenuating factor. Hollywood rallied to the director's
defence, with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Natalie Portman
signing petitions for his release. Those in favour of Polanski's
extradition include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx and Chris Rock.
Whoopi Goldberg provoked criticism when she said: "Whatever Polanski
was guilty of, it wasn't rape-rape." Gore Vidal added fuel to the
fire, saying: "Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young
hooker feels as though she's been taken advantage of?"
On 20 October, an application for bail was rejected by the Swiss
authorities. Six days later, Geimer repeated her request for the
charges to be dropped. But Polanski, now 76, remains in a Zurich
prison facing the prospect of extradition and sentencing, 30 years
after the fact, in Los Angeles.
The best of Polanski
Starring Catherine Deneuve.
Sexually troubled manicurist Carole (Deneuve) is repelled by the
sounds of her sister (Yvonne Furneaux) in bed with her married lover.
Left alone when they go on holiday, she starts to hallucinate as she
loses her mind, culminating in her bludgeoning her own boyfriend to death.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes.
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse move into an apartment where their's
neighbours are kooky even by New York standards: they're a coven.
Rosemary suffers a troublesome pregnancy, hardly surprising as the
natural father of her child is the devil. Not recommended for mothers-to-be.
Starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
Murder and murky waters in LA, where private eye JJ 'Jake' Gittes
(Nicholson) is hired to expose a philandering husband and ends up
mired in a tangle of state and municipal corruption centred round the
city's water supply. Robert Towne won an Oscar for the best original
The Tenant (1976)
Starring Roman Polanski and Isabelle Adjani. Polanski stars as
Trelkovsky, a reclusive Pole living in Paris, who rents a flat only
to discover that the previous tenant (Adjani) has thrown herself out
of the window and lies in a coma. He gradually becomes convinced that
his new neighbours want the same fate to befall him.
Starring Harrison Ford.
'A reminder of how absorbing a thriller can be,' said Roger Ebert of
the Chicago Sun-Times. The wife of Dr Richard Walker (Ford) is
kidnapped while they are in Paris for a medical conference.
Linguistically challenged, he has to enter the city's punk/drug
culture to discover why.
The Pianist (2002)
Starring Adrien Brody.
Polanski won the best director Oscar for this film based on the
autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was playing Chopin on the
radio when German bombs first fell on Warsaw. It allowed Polanski, a
Holocaust survivor, to explore a place he said he'd never go his
own dark past.