Thursday, 16 June 2011

On Polanski

After having recently finished reading Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Manor, I wondered what to read next. Having just read a novel - Singer's - I decided I needed to go back again to the topic I feel passionate about most - Film - and somehow I ended up buying Christopher Sandford's monography on Roman Polanski.

For as long as I can think of, Polanski has always been among the directors whose work I most admire. Others include Kubrick, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Lynch, Lumet and Wilder. This doesn't necessarily mean that I love all of their films - though I do most of them - it's simply that these directors' level of artistry has been unusually high and just as consistent. Certainly in comparison to most of their peers. In my opinion, anyway!

Paul Werner's book on Polanski was one of the first film-books I picked up when I was still in my early twenties. Although I'd already been obsessed with Polanski prior to reading it, Werner's book really opened my eyes. His insight, his analysis of Polanski's films and the way he forges links to Polanski's life without reading too much into them, helped me to better understand not only Polanski's work but also Polanski, the man. Additionally, it buttressed my opinion - already firm back then - that Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion are masterpieces and quite simply milestones in film history. To this day, they remain among my all-time favourite films: Excellently crafted stories which never underestimate the viewer, keeping you at the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

Once I'd started reading Sandford's book it dawned on me that my subconscious must have been playing a trick on me as Sandford's book took me straight back to Poland, though not the Poland of The Manor, but rather the Poland of the German invasion and subsequent occupation. I'd previously known, of course, that Polanksi was of Polish descent and that he spent part of his youth in the Warsaw Ghetto, but it nevertheless startled me how neatly Sandford's account picked up where Singer's book left off.

Roman Polanski and his second wife, Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1968

Anyhow, unlike Werner's, Sandford's book focusses on Polanski rather than offering sharp analyses of his films. However, it is one of the strengths of his book that Sandford manages to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls in biography-writing: The tendency to become anecdotal. While avoiding anecdotes is, of course, almost impossible in any biography, Polanski - such is the apt title of Sandford's book - introduces these anecdotes with caution and, where possible, even offering corroboration. Moreover, Sandford's is not one of those kiss-and-tell stories - the literary equivalent of a bodice ripper - but rather a well researched account of the life of one of the greatest directors of our time, told by someone who has nothing but admiration for his subject, something which suffuses every page of Sandford's book.

Roman Polanski and Ewan McGregor on location on the German island of Sylt, shooting Polanski's latest, The Ghost. To read my review of The Ghost, click HERE!

Somehow life's full of coincidences ... or is it? After reading up on Polanski had got me back into the mood of watching some vintage Polanski on the big screen - Polanksi is strictly for the movie theatre only! - I ran a google search and what did it throw up? Sadly no Polanksi retrospective anywhere near my home, but nevertheless, I found out that there currently is an exhibition on Polanski, organised by the film museums of Potsdam and Duesseldorf in collaboration with Polanski's alma mater, the Lodz Film School.

Deneuve going off the rails in Repulsion (1965)

The Beckett-inspired Cul-De-Sac (1966), which won the Grand Prix at that year's Berlin Film Festival

Mia Farrow playing the girl who, to use former Paramount executive Charles Bluhdorn's words, "was shtupped by the devil" in Rosemary's Baby (1967)

Until his untimely death in 1968 composer Kryzstof Komeda was a friend and frequent collaborator of Polanski's. Listen to Komeda's hauntingly beautiful score for Rosemary's Baby which much contributes to the cult status the film has since attained:

Faye Dunaway, playing the tragic heroine Evelyn Mulwray in Polanski's film-noir-to-end-all-film-noirs - Chinatown (1974)

Watch an original 1974 trailer of Chinatown here:

Yet another tragic heroine. Polanski's early films are full of women at the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the case of The Tenant (1976), this woman's called Simone Choule (though he's actually called Trelkovsky ...) and is played by none other than Polanski himself.

Adrian Brody walking the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto in one of The Pianist's most devastating scenes.

Recommended books about Roman Polanski:

Sandford, Christopher: Polanski, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 (in English)
Werner, Paul, Roman Polanski, Fischer Cinema, 1984 (in German)

Roman Polanski, An Exhibition:

- Filmmuseum Potsdam, until 3 July 2011