Thanks to his darkly unique perspective and grim, often nihilistic approach to storytelling, director Roman Polanski has left an indelible mark on world cinema. Although his films have been compared to those of Alfred Hitchcock, with their use of gallows humor, tension, and occasional surrealism to tell amoral stories of ordinary men struggling to cope in a hostile, ironic world, Polanski, unlike Hitchcock, has chosen to experiment with a variety of genres. In this regard, the director has considered himself a "cinematic playboy" intent on exploring the possibilities of all film categories. A uniformly pessimistic viewpoint provides the clearest link to entries in Polanski's body of work, something that is widely traced back to years of childhood trauma.
The son of a Polish Jew and a Russian immigrant, Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933. When he was three, his family moved to the Polish town of Krakow, an unfortunate decision given that the Germans invaded the city in 1940. Things went from bad to worse with the formation of Krakow's Jewish ghetto, and Polanski's family was the target of further persecution when his parents were deported to a concentration camp. Just before he was to be taken away, however, Polanski's father helped his son escape, and the boy managed to survive with help from kindly Catholic families, although he was at times forced to fend for himself. (At one point, the Germans decided to use Polanski for idle target practice.) It was during this period that Polanski became a devoted cinephile, seeking refuge in movie houses whenever possible. The cinemas provided him a type of protection that was brutally absent in the outside world.
Shortly after sustaining serious injuries in an explosion, Polanski learned of his mother's death at Auschwitz. His father survived the camps, and moved back to Krakow with his son. Following his father's remarriage, the adolescent Polanski left home. Although still coping with great personal turmoil, he managed to nurture his love of the cinema; two films that particularly influenced him at the time were Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. Following a near-fatal incident at the age of 16 -- which involved Polanski nearly becoming the next victim of a man who had just killed three people -- his father enrolled him in a technical school. He left in 1950 to attend film school, concurrently becoming an actor with the Krakow Theater and made his onscreen acting debut in Andrzej Wajda's 1954 Pokolenie/A Generation.
That same year, Polanski was one of six applicants accepted into the rigorous director's course at Lodz's prestigious State Film School. In 1957, he made his first student film Rozbijemy Zabawe/Break up the Dance, an account of paid thugs destroying a school party (a stunt that almost got him expelled). Polanski's next film, Dwaj Ludzie z Szafa/Two Men and a Wardrobe, proved to be one of his most famous, winning him five international awards. This and subsequent shorts such as Le Gros et le Maigre/The Fat and the Lean (made in 1961 after his graduation) all featured the black humor that would characterize his later features. Polanski made his feature film debut in 1962 with Noz w Wodzie/Knife in the Water; as with most of his subsequent features, he also worked on the screenplay, in this case collaborating with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg. A suspenseful, symbolic psychological drama set aboard a sailboat, the film told the story of a husband's misbegotten attempts to impress his wife and a potential rival, a young hitchhiker they bring aboard on a whim. It is considered the first Polish film not to deal with World War II, and was applauded for its visual precision (another characteristic of Polanski's work). It was also the only full-length feature the director made in Poland.
Polanski moved to England to make his next two films, the first of which, Repulsion, became a cornerstone of contemporary psychological thrillers and, despite poor box-office returns, is said to be the director's favorite film. Polanski made his Hollywood debut in 1968 with the horror classic Rosemary's Baby. As with his earlier works, the film was more concerned with psychological terror than cheap shocks, creating a sense of foreboding terror that many directors have since tried to emulate with limited success. Polanski's next film, Macbeth, was a faithful but controversial adaptation of Shakespeare. Made shortly after his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson Family, its graphic violence was said to reflect the director's grief and outrage.
Polanski then shifted gears, making a sex comedy (What?)in Italy before returning to Hollywood to direct one of his finest efforts, Chinatown (1974), a film that revitalized the nearly dead film noir movement and earned Polanski an Oscar nomination and a British Academy Award. He followed up this success in 1976 with the suspenseful and surrealistic Le Locataire/The Tenant. A sinister, paranoid tale of madness, manipulation, and vengeance, it was reportedly filmed in the neighborhood where Polanski lived when he first came to Paris. The next year, the director made the news for a different and altogether disastrous reason: While in Hollywood working on a project, he was charged of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Barred from working in Hollywood, Polanski fled the country and resettled in Paris (he had acquired French citizenship in 1976) and did not make another film until 1979. An adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, the three-hour long Tess, starring 17-year-old Nastassja Kinski (with whom Polanski was also involved), was the most expensive film made in France at the time. But despite its cost, it proved to be a success, netting Polanski an Oscar nomination and a César award for Best Direction.
While Tess was marked by a kind of lyrical romanticism, Polanski's next film, Pirates (1986), was an all-out spoof. As with his other comedies, it was not a success. In fact, after the much-lauded Tess, Polanski's work became intermittent and of spotty quality. Frantic, his 1988 thriller with Harrison Ford, failed to garner either critical or commercial favor, and his next effort, the perversely erotic thriller Bitter Moon (1992) received notice mainly because it starred a then-unknown Hugh Grant. Polanski found greater critical success in 1994 with Death and the Maiden, his adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play, starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver. Two years later, he branched out with the experimental Gli Angeli, and, in 1999, returned to mystery-thriller territory with The Ninth Gate, starring his third wife Emmanuelle Seigner. (Barbara Lass was his first wife; Tate, his second.)
Though The Ninth Gate would barely register a blip on the box-office radar, it was Polanski's next film that would show that the director was still very much at the top of his game. Based upon the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman and admittedly inspired by his own shattering childhood experiences, Polanski's The Pianist told the heart-wrenching tale of a brilliant pianist who eludes his Nazi captors by hiding out in the ruins of Warzaw. The film began collecting accolades from its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, where it received the top prize, the Palme d'Or, to the Academy Awards, where it snagged seven nominations including Best Picture. In what would be a night of many surprises, The Pianist upset such favored competition as the popular musical Chicago and Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York to win three Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director, although the latter prize went unclaimed, as Polanski was still a fugitive from Los Angeles County and therefore unable to enter the country.
Over the years, Polanski also continued to nurture an interest in the theater, directing Berg's Lulu, Verdi's Rigoletto, and Tales of Hoffman at various theaters around Europe. In 1981, he directed and starred in the Warsaw production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, which he re-staged successfully in Paris in 1982. In 1988, he played the leading role in Stephen Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis (again on the Paris stage). He's also contributed some occasional film acting, playing opposite Gerard Depardieu in Giuseppe Tornatore's Una Pura Formalità/A Pure Formality in 1994, as well as appearing in his own films.
In September of 2009, on route to attend a career retrospective at the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski was taken into custody by Swiss officials becuase of a warrant issued by the United States in regard to his flight from justice at the time of his 1977 arrest for child molestation. The arrest interrupted the production of Polanski's 2010 film The Ghost Writer -- a political thriller starring Ewan McGregor and based on writer/former BBC reporter Robert Harris' novel The Ghost -- though it hardly had any impact on the controversial director's career momentun; the following year he adapted Yasmina Reza stage play The God of Carnage to the big screen in Carnage -- a scathing comedy starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz as four parents attempting to resolve a bullying issue between their young sons, but ultimately proving themselves to be just as childish as their feuding offspring. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi