Born in Paris in 1933 to Polish parents who unfortunately returned to Poland in 1937, Polanski survived the Nazi extermination of the inhabitants of Krakow’s Jewish ghetto (although his mother died in Auschwitz). He roamed the countryside struggling to survive for the remainder of the war, at times being sheltered by sympathetic families but also witnessing atrocities that seem likely to have influenced his choice of material and portrayal of violence on screen.
Polanski met actress Sharon Tate while making The Fearless Vampire Killers, and they were married in January 1968. In August 1969, while Polanski was in Europe, the pregnant Tate and four of their friends were murdered at their LA residence at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon by the followers of Charles Manson, a crime that has often hyperbolically been referred to as one that ‘helped wipe out the ‘60s’. In his autobiography Polanski referred to the tragedy as his life’s watershed moment, and to his absence at the time of the murders as the biggest regret of his life. Polanski grieved and returned to filmmaking in 1971, and his work in the decade after the Manson murders includes the film that many feel is his finest work, Chinatown (1974).
His life was dealt a third decisive blow, this one largely of his own making, when he opted to flee the U.S. in February 1978 with criminal charges pending against him. Polanski was indicted on six counts of criminal behaviour, including rape, stemming from an incident involving a 13 year old girl during a photo shoot for French Vogue. After striking a plea bargain in which five of the six charges were to be dropped, and serving 42 days at California’s Chino Prison for a psychiatric evaluation, Polanski came to believe that the judge in his case was going to renege on his promise of no further jail time and so slipped out of the U.S. and returned to France.
Many feel that he has not really produced any work that equals his best films made before his flight, with the possible exception of the Oscar winning The Pianist (2002). The U.S. criminal charges against him remain unresolved and Polanski continues to make movies in Europe, most recently the film adaptation of the Broadway hit God of Carnage, renamed Carnage (2011) for the screen.
He is working on two releases for 2013, the year in which he turns 80: Venus in Fur, another stage to screen adaptation, which is currently in post-production; and D, a film about the notorious 19th century Dreyfus affair in which a Jewish member of the French Army’s general staff was sent to Devil’s Island for allegedly passing secrets to the Germans.
Working backwards, here are my choices for the six best films by one of post war cinema’s most intriguing talents.
6. (The Tragedy of) Macbeth (1971)
I first saw Polanski’s adaptation of the ‘Scottish play’ when studying it in my year 11 English Literature class; we were pleased to be getting a couple of hours out of the classroom and, as 17 year olds, certainly weren’t prepared for the sinister, bloody film that we watched that winter afternoon.
Polanski and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan ramped up the violence (Duncan’s murder for example was not shown in the play as it is in this film) and nudity (the witches and a nude sleepwalking scene by Lady Macbeth) in this first film production by Playboy Enterprises.
The late Jon Finch (who was cast over Tynan’s objections – he wanted Nicol Williamson) is a believably tormented monarch, and the film’s dark, rain lashed mise en scene imbues it with a palpable sense of supernatural foreboding and evil.
5. Cul-de-sac (1966)
Starring the versatile Donald Pleasance, one time blacklistee Lionel Stander, and Francoise Dorleac, this Pinteresque tragi-comedy about two wounded criminals on the lam who are forced to hide out in a decidedly odd couple’s beachfront castle is pitch perfect.
This is the funniest film (albeit darkly so) from a director not known for his comedic touch.