ZURICH - Legendary director Roman Polanski has granted his first interview since being arrested and jailed in 2009 by Swiss police on a three-decades-old warrant for having fled the US after being charged with unlawful sex with an underage girl. Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in the United States in 1977, but later fled the country before his sentencing. The Paris-born Polish-raised Holocaust survivor spoke with Darius Rochebin of Swiss channel TSR about his legal troubles, and about a life of both triumph and tragedy.
Your movie, Carnage, which was welcomed with wild applause at the Venice Film Festival, was also awarded the Prix d’honneur at the Zurich Film Festival. After the disgrace of being in prison, do you find these back-to-back honors ironic?
Roman Polanski: This is something I have been used to for 34 years. We mustn’t forget that I went to prison. I did my time. That’s why I left the United States at the time, because they wanted to send me back. But this time, it was more bearable. I wasn't the same restless, young, jet-setting director that I used to be.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes, naturally. I have had regrets for 33 years. Of course, I regret it.
Today you can no longer go anywhere except to France, Switzerland, Poland.
I live in France, I am French!
Yes of course, but there are many places where you cannot go. Do you feel imprisoned?
No, because I have already gotten used to it during this sabbatical year [laughs]. And also, I have travelled a lot in my life. What matters to me is being near my family, and not being seprated from them as I was during that year.
You’re at times described as an “evil and depraved midget,” or as “a genius of cinema,” or both at the same time…
This image of me appeared when Sharon Tate died. The media love that kind of story, and it snowballed. It exploded with the invention of the Internet.
Why did you come to Switzerland the first time?
Oddly enough, the first time was to flee from the media. It was after the tragedy that happened to us in Los Angeles, where my wife Sharon Tate, who was eight-months pregnant, was murdered along with three of my friends. Before Manson was found, I was even suspected of being involved. This got the media tremendously excited because I had just finished the film Rosemary’s Baby, which is about black magic, so they immediately mixed everything up.
It was unbearable. A friend of mine had invited me to Gstaad. He told me, “You’ll be safe here.” And in fact, at that time, I was totally safe. Some paparazzi who would turn up around Christmas time to take pictures of me, but that’s it.
Sharon Tate was killed while she was pregnant. Your mother was killed in Auschwitz, also pregnant, and yet you always manage to recover. How do you do it?
You know, I ask myself that question sometimes. Perhaps I’m made of stronger stuff. You could make nails out of me.
You’ve often been faced with death, when your loved ones died, when you yourself almost died... Did it change your way of seeing things?
Certainly, I have seen death when I was very young, in the ghetto. The first time, I saw a woman killed when I was seven years old, just a dozen feet away. It’s like a surgeon who gets used to seeing stomachs cut open. I have gotten used to death, yes.
What is your first cinema-related memory?
It was when my big sister used to take me to the movies. I was too young to go to the cinema; the only interesting thing to me was that the theater was empty. It was in the afternoon, and when I wanted to go pee, she didn’t want to miss a scene, so she had me pee in the rows of seats.
When your parents were deported, you hid with Polish Catholic families.
It was literally a medieval countryside…There was nothing to eat but gruel. The family with whom I was staying had three kids. The wife was very good, very religious. She was very fond of me. It was good, it was all good.
Was there any fear, mistrust?
Yes, because I could be caught anytime. Thankfully, I had an extremely Polish kind of look. I had fair hair. You can still see them now, even if they are gray. It was not difficult for me to hide.
You were very lucky?
Very lucky, yes. But also very unlucky. Both come together. In the end, high times may make up for low times.
You wrote Carnage partly while you were in prison. These are very particular conditions.
These are great conditions! I would certainly suggest some screenwriters be arrested so that they get to work [laughs]. Before, in Hollywood studios, there was a place called “Writer’s Block,” where screenwriters had to clock in in the morning!
Carnage is a story about two couples who have friendly relationships in the beginning, then it completely deteriorates into insults and hatred. This is what appealed to me in Yasmina Reza's play. It is the denunciation of the politically correct. The characters reveal their true human nature, that is, that they are capable of hating, of being selfish, though everything is concealed under a middle-class veneer of people who want to be respectable.
During your time in prison, you worked on the same table where prisoners cut onions.
I was finishing up Ghost Writer. I had a computer, but I did not have any Internet access. I was sent DVDs. I took notes that I gave to the lawyer, the lawyer would give them to the police, and the police would give them back to the lawyer. Then, they would be sent to my editor. It was an extremely slow process. They set us up in a room where prisoners would normally cut onions to earn a bit of money.
You told us that it was your son who cut off the electronic bracelet when you were freed. What does the taste of liberty feel like?
It was a little odd for the first days. It’s another angle, in the language of us filmmakers. There are after-effects, nevertheless. One doesn’t work the same way after an experience like that, at my age, so long after it all happened…
I remember when you said that what you liked at the theaters was the long waiting lines of moviegoers queuing...
Of course, one can create the most marvelous things, but if they are not accepted, it’s a tragedy. It's like Van Gogh, who sold only one painting, and in fact to his brother, I believe. This great painter, who is my absolute favorite, lived his life for us, not for himself. I don’t have this ambition; I would like to share my view of the world with others.
Read the full article in French
Photo - TSR