Martin Amis interviews Roman Polanski

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

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 understand this.

"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

Repulsion (1965)

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.

Chinatown (1974)

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 screenplay.

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.

Frantic (1988)

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.

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Published on December 05, 2009 16:09
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