Roman Polanski begins his autobiography with this reflection: “For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred. I have taken most of a lifetime to grasp that this is the key to my very existence”. At the simplest level, Polanski is signalling here that his early immersion in the imaginary worlds of storytelling – especially those visualised on a movie screen – and his experience as a child actor on the Polish stage prepared him well to be a filmmaker. But there is also a desperate element involved in this escapism because, as he avows, “I needed all the fantasy I could muster, simply to survive”. Polanski's life has been marked by horrific hardships. After the Nazis seized Poland in 1939, Polanski was interned with his Jewish parents in the Krakow ghetto; in 1941, when his parents were deported to the concentration camps, young Roman was cut loose and wandered from family to family for years, defending himself as a member of street gangs.
Polanski, as he retells these traumatic years, stresses not only the dislocation and oppression forced upon innocent people, but also the ways in which victims could themselves become victimisers – a treacherous dynamic evident in many of his films. As a result of these formative experiences, and of his subsequent exposure to Poland under Soviet domination post 1956 and the ensuing Stalinist purges, Polanski learnt to be forever sceptical of the “feverish and futile rhetoric” of political ideology. Lacking religious convictions, he professes only a “faith in the absurd”. Later tragedies and mishaps that befell him – the brutal, senseless murder of his then-pregnant wife, actor Sharon Tate, by members of Charles Manson's sect in 1969, and his flight from America in 1979 during criminal proceedings on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a teenage girl – only strengthened his cynical, disenchanted faith.
In this context, Polanski's work as a filmmaker seemed to blur reality and fantasy in many ways and directions at once. On the one hand, he was able to escape his impoverished past by entering the glamorous, jet-setting, sensation-driven world of international cinema; and on the other hand, his grisliest visions seemed to call forth worse terrors in reality, as a kind of malign reprisal. His films court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it. Perversity, of all kinds, is a double-edged sword in his career. Polanski fed off mass media fantasy and, increasingly, it fed off him; in a twist familiar from many of his movies, it is hard to decide who is the vampire and who is the vampire killer.
Polanski has always ruled out a direct, autobiographical correlation between his life and his films. Each project, he insists, has its own attractions, its own public timeliness, its own challenges of filmic art or craft. And yet it is impossible not to see a great deal of his work as a dreamlike transformation of these first-hand experiences of modern evil and trauma (when once quizzed about the violence in his work, he plaintively replied: “There is a lot of violence in the world; just look around”). Film historians Mira and A.J. Liehm propose that the director's “private world of horror” meshed with a peculiarly Polish sensibility. This sense of the unfailing absurdity of all things is “rooted deep in Gothic horror” and came to be crystallised in the living nightmare of the 20th century, when the everyday experience of deprivation and frustration met, on a collective and historic plane, the “rising pessimism which followed the enthusiasm of 1956”.
And yet Polanski is also a citizen of world cinema – a multicultural landscape in which he operated long before it was given that name. As an artist, storyteller and entertainer (as well as actor), he has worked across many countries, languages, styles and genres. He has constantly reinvented himself in the face of changing fashions and personal hardships. He is a chameleon – and such fluency at adapting oneself is another necessary survival skill that Polanski must have learned, savagely, as a child. Yet, for all this diversity and metamorphosis, there is a bedrock to Polanski's cinema, a sometimes only dimly discernible but powerfully felt signature.
As Herbert Eagle puts it, Polanski crossed the border from Poland to the West so successfully because “his own personal obsessions as an artist could be mapped onto larger social and political issues which applied to Western culture as much as to East Central European culture”. Polanski's bleak view of human affairs reached back in time to encompass Shakespeare (in Macbeth, 1971) as resonantly as it telescoped the criminal past and present of big-city America (in Chinatown, 1974).
Polanski's cinema represents a dizzy intersection of traditions brought within the artistic logic and coherence of a single, personal sensibility. His experience in Polish theatre gave him a lasting love of Absurdism, with its sardonic, existential view of life's futility, and its vicious parodies of the chaotic power games that underpin (and often undermine) social structures. One need only inventory the roles that Polanski chooses as an actor, either in his own work or that of others, to see the Absurdist influence: either he is a pathetic victim (as the human cockroach in Steven Berkoff's production of Kafka's Metamorphosis, or in The Tenant, 1976) or he is a sadistic bully (as the cop in Tornatore's A Pure Formality , or the knife-wielding thug in Chinatown). This form of theatre also helped to shape Polanski's reigning anti-realist bias: an ingenious master of artifice and stylisation, Polanski always begins by turning the human body and the actor's performing style into a kind of exaggerated cartoon, in all aspects of costume, posture, gesture and vocal tone. Few filmmakers cherish the grotesque quite like Polanski.
Polanski came to international prominence in the 1960s, the era of the various, global, New Wave movements in cinema. Yet he steadfastly resisted the prevailing cult of freewheeling roughness, spontaneity and rule-breaking associated with such contemporaneous figures as Jean-Luc Godard, Jerzy Skolimowski and Nagisa Oshima. For Polanski, even the most modern, disconcerting or radical experiment must be anchored in a solid sense of filmic and storytelling craft. He depends upon a well-chiselled, perfectly formed screenplay from the hand of his close friend Gérard Brach (1927-2006), or Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, 2002); he welcomes tricky technical challenges such as shooting an entire film within the controlled artifice of a set-built house (Death and the Maiden, 1994) or boat (Bitter Moon, 1992). Popular genres, which he has always appreciated, attract him as traditions to be mastered and bent to his own purposes; he has embraced many such genres, from Hitchcockian suspense (Frantic, 1987) and comedy-adventure (Pirates, 1986) to the detective mystery (Chinatown), costume melodrama (Tess, 1980) and, more recently, elaborate political intrigue (The Ghost Writer, 2010). Although we tend to identify him exclusively with the darkest forms of Gothic cinema, from horror tales fed by ancient, demonic beliefs (Rosemary's Baby, 1968 and The Ninth Gate, 2000) to contemporary, psychological thrillers (The Tenant and Repulsion, 1965), there are also innocent, comic and childlike aspects to his sensibility, as evidenced by The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Oliver Twist (2005).
Polanski fed off mass media fantasy and, increasingly, it fed off him; in a twist familiar from many of his movies, it is hard to decide who is the vampire and who is the vampire killer.
Polanski is a director who works from the smallest elements up to the biggest picture. He has declared: “Above everything else, cinema is atmosphere ... It’s the personality of a film”. Long acclaimed for his skill in composing and staging images – a strength obvious from his early shorts, such as Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) – he is just as adept at stylising sound and cannily choosing composers, such as, in the '50s and '60s, Krzysztof Komeda and Chico Hamilton, or later Ennio Morricone and Alexandre Desplat. Sigourney Weaver has testified to his meticulousness: “He concentrates on details, props, corners; he celebrates that claustrophobic intensity of relationships”. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Polanski unleashes his own brand of surrealism from the basis of a realism and logic at these minute levels of texture: “The only way to seduce people into believing you – whether they want to or not – is to take painstaking care with the details of your film, to make it accurate. Sloppiness destroys emotional impact”.
If this emphasis on emotion and audience identification summarises the classical and show-business sides of Polanski – as he once insisted, “characters and utmost fear are the most important thing in cinema” – there is also a formalist or structuralist side to his art, a pure architecture of plot shapes, character functions, signifying traces and properties of space and time systematically inventoried and explored (as in Cul-de-Sac, which the director considered “well in advance of anything that has been done in the semantics of cinema”). Without ever losing the entertainment factor, Polanski has been able to turn pop culture stories into quasi-avant-garde mazes or puzzles – or proto-video games, hypertext fictions for the digital age, as The Ninth Gate gleefully shows.
In the heady days of the '60s cinematic revolution, Polanski joined the radicals on a single and very particular front: the investigation of mental images. As films involved themselves in the complexities of psychic life – dreams, memories, hallucinations and reveries – they simultaneously enriched the language of cinema, opening it up to new mysteries and possibilities, and discovered new concepts for describing the contemporary experience of individuals in a bewildering, rapidly changing world. For Polanski, film was the ideal medium for picturing what he called a “landscape of the mind” – a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination.
So, in the final instance, that hopeless blurring of fantasy and reality of which Polanski spoke in his autobiography has become more than just the key to this artist's personal existence, or the basis for his art. It has become – with tremendous prescience – a way of speaking about the complexities of experience on that always fraught and permeable line between what individuals feel and process inside and what happens in the great outside of collective history. As Pascal Kané (author of the first serious, book-length study of this director) perceived as early as 1967 in his review of Cul-de-sac: “The emotion at the very heart of his creation is fear, the sole driver of a world close to total paralysis – a fear which identifies all action with a desperate attempt at exorcism”.
Polanski's melodramatic and Gothic vision has, in recent years, become at once more cosmic (in The Ninth Gate) and more acutely political (in the human rights drama of Death and the Maiden or the high-level state corruption of The Ghost Writer) – without any trace of contradiction. This is because Polanski's “private world of horror” has ultimately served him and his audience well: the idiom of the Gothic – with its emphasis on paranoia, hysteria and psychosis – has proved to be an extremely apt language to begin to grasp the terrors that play out on both the world stage and in the individual psyche in our twenty-first century. The intuition which the Liehms claimed for Polanski's “Polish despair” has turned out to be monstrously true for everyone, everywhere: “All nightmares come true, all hidden fears are real”. And it is in these cinematic landscapes of the mind – as conjured for us by masters like Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñuel or Roman Polanski – that we will sense and understand the first, warning tremors of our future.
Adrian Martin (Melbourne, 1959), film critic. Co-editor of online film journal LOLA. His articles and audiovisual essays have appeared in Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Trafic, Caimán, De Filmkrant, Fandor and MUBI. Author of 7 books, including Phantasms (1994), What is Modern Cinema? (2008) and Mise en scène and Film Style (2014). Frequent contributor of DVD audio commentaries for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and the British Film Institute. Former film critic for The Age (1995-2006).
This essay appeared in its original form in the 2001 Brisbane International Film Festival catalogue. The version published here has been updated by the author.