The darkness pervading Roman Polanski’s films could never match the horror and scandal of his life, which has left him admired as a genius by some and reviled as a child abuser and international fugitive by others.
The 90-year-old Franco-Polish director was back at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday with The Palace, a farce set in a Swiss hotel on New Year’s Eve.
Polanski’s life has often seemed dangerously in step with the most extreme highs and lows of the past century.
He has been a victim of horrific crimes – losing a mother to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and a wife and child to the Manson Family cult.
He has also been a perpetrator – a convicted child rapist, later accused of multiple other sex crimes.
And he remains a great artist – with films such as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist winning eight Academy Awards from 27 nominations, as well as many other prizes around the world.
For a long time, his achievements overshadowed his crimes, particularly in France where he fled in 1978 from what was widely seen as a botched trial in California for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
But as attitudes changed in later years, Polanski’s privileged status became a lightning rod for protests.
Horrors in Nazi Poland and LA
Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933, to Polish parents who later brought the family back to their native country. He was eight when the Nazis arrested his mother and father in Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, forcing him into years of wandering.
The experience lent a gripping autobiographical authenticity to 2002’s The Pianist about a Jewish man trying to evade the Nazis in occupied Warsaw which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars.
Polanski’s awareness of humanity’s capacity for cruelty shaped his work from the start, as did the alienation of multiple self-imposed exiles.
His 1962 Polish debut Knife in the Water was an erotic thriller about a couple inviting a switchblade-toting hitchhiker onto their yacht.
Panned at home, it was praised in the West and nominated for an Oscar, providing a way out of Communist Poland.
He was more at home in the party scene of Swinging Sixties London, where he made Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966), and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).
He met his second wife, model and actress Sharon Tate, while filming the latter, and became a global star with his Hollywood debut Rosemary’s Baby with Mia Farrow as an expectant mother carrying the devil’s spawn.
It was at this pinnacle that tragedy struck in 1969 when Tate, pregnant with his first child, was slaughtered along with four friends in the director’s mansion by Charles Manson’s followers.
“I was not myself for years,” Polanski later said.
Initially retreating to Europe, he returned to achieve arguably his greatest triumph in 1974 with Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson – considered a pinnacle of Hollywood film noir.
Running from the law
In 1977, Polanski was arrested after 13-year-old Samantha Gailey accused him of plying her with drugs and champagne, and forcibly sodomising her against her wishes.
Seeking to spare the child a trial, prosecutors dropped the most serious charges in a plea deal, with Polanski accepting guilt for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and serving 42 days in the notorious Chino prison while undergoing psychiatric evaluation.
However, the judge, Laurence Rittenband, who had already taken several controversial decisions in the case, then appeared set to change his mind and hand down a lengthy prison sentence – at which point Polanski fled to Europe, beginning a new life as a fugitive.
All parties – including Gailey and the chief prosecutor – agreed the judge mishandled the case, with Gailey’s own lawyer saying that despite Polanski’s “outrageous” crime, “he was supposed to be treated fairly in court and clearly he was not”.
The case has dogged Polanski for the rest of his life, even after Gailey publicly forgave him in 1997 and said her treatment by the press and judicial system were worse than the original crime.
An Interpol red notice was issued for Polanski in 2005, and he was detained in Switzerland when he came to pick up a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.
After two months in detention and eight more under house arrest, the US extradition request was rejected.
A similar attempt at extradition was also blocked in Poland in 2015 after a brief detention.
Polanski married his third wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, in 1989, and the couple have two children.
“In the eyes of many people I am a kind of gnome and debauched individual,” Polanski wrote in his autobiography.
“But my friends – and the women in my life – know exactly what they are dealing with.”
Many stars remained loyal.
“He’s an intense director, a man who’s lived an intense life. He was exhilarating,” said Pierce Brosnan, who starred in his 2010 thriller The Ghost Writer.
“When Roman Polanski invites you to join him in any project you really don’t say no,” said Kate Winslet, who starred in 2011’s Carnage.
But the mood shifted in the MeToo era.
His best director win at the French Cesar Awards in 2020 for An Officer and a Spy triggered protests inside and outside the venue, and led the entire academy to resign.
By then, more allegations had surfaced from women who said Polanski raped them when they were minors, claims he denied.
“My life had this great amplitude of things. There are lives that go straight. I don’t know which is better,” he said in a 2011 documentary.