February 23, 2020

Roman Polanski gives his side of the story

“People that don’t know me have an opinion of me that comes from the media. And that’s so far remote from what I am that I can’t even try to straighten it out.” These words from the controversial film director and provocateur Roman Polanski about his public image are the basis of a new documentary, “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” 

The film, which will be shown on June 2 as part of the 2013 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, was produced by Andrew Braunsberg, a longtime friend of Polanski who also produced three of the director’s films, “Macbeth” (1971), “What?” (1972) and “The Tenant” (1976). Braunsberg came up with the idea of filming a conversation between himself and his friend while Polanski was under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland. At the time, Polanski was fighting extradition to the United States for an outstanding bench warrant linked to his infamous 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Polanski was arrested at the Zurich airport in September 2009 on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. A Holocaust survivor whose pregnant wife was murdered in 1969, the Oscar-winning director is known as much for his personal dramas as he is for his film work. “The goal of the film is to show Roman at a very stressful time of his life while being under house arrest,” the film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, said in a phone interview. “It’s Roman at his most vulnerable and most open, talking about his entire life and career during a very difficult time.”  

Bouzereau was asked by Braunsberg to look at the footage he shot of his conversations with Polanski to see if there might be a movie there. “I said, ‘Yes!’ ” Bouzereau recalled. “But it’s missing part of act two and, ultimately, a resolution. There were 30 hours of conversation to go through, and you want to make sure you tell the story in 90 minutes. I thought we should start the narrative while he was under house arrest, with Roman reflecting back. And then the last third of the film would be about what happened after he was freed and looking back at this entire experience.”

From left: Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski on the set of “The Pianist.” Photo by Guy Ferrandis

As Polanski noted, much of the public’s perception of him has come from outside sources. Innumerable articles have been written about Polanski, and two earlier documentaries focused on his legal problems, but, as Bouzereau pointed out, this film is the only firsthand account from the subject. “It’s a film that’s from the point of view of Roman Polanski, and this is the first time that he got to express himself,” Bouzereau said. “And it could only happen if he was surrounded by friends. It would have never happened if it was a reporter or someone out to get dirt. It was in his own words and what he was willing to share with the world about what he’s gone through. So, for better or worse, it is Roman in his own words about all of those different situations. The Holocaust, for one, Sharon Tate being another, and the situation with the American girl being the third.”

In the film, Polanski’s reflections begin with his catastrophic childhood. Born Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański in Paris in 1933 to a Jewish father and Russian-born Catholic mother — both said to have been agnostic — Polanski and his family relocated to Krakow, Poland, three years later. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, they were subjected to the horrors of living under Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Eventually, his family was sent to concentration camps, leaving the young boy alone until he was taken in by another family. 

Years later, Polanski was reunited with his sister and father. His mother, however, did not survive the camps. Many of Polanski’s memories of that dark period were re-created in his 2002 film, “The Pianist,” for which he won an Academy Award for best director. In 1969, Polanski was once again beset by tragedy when Tate, his young, pregnant actress bride, was brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. Polanski was in London working on a script with Braunsberg when he got the devastating news.  

 Of all of the events in Polanski’s life, however, it’s his 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and then having sex with a 13-year-old girl — charges that through a plea bargain arrangement were reduced to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful intercourse, before he fled the United States hours before being sentenced — that long ago turned the filmmaker into a polarizing figure. And that notoriety has now spilled over to Braunsberg and Bouzereau’s film. 

The documentary made its debut at the 2011 Zurich Film Festival, the same festival that Polanski was trying to attend when he was arrested. The premiere took place with little fanfare, but when it was shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the critics took issue with the film’s one-sided point of view as well as with the subject’s relationship with the filmmakers. 

Roman Polanski and wife Emmanuelle Seigner in “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Photo courtesy of Eclipse Films

“It’s already controversial from the way it was received by the press,” Bouzereau said. “I think a lot of people felt that it was a very subjective view of the man, which is stating the obvious. It is subjective, in that it’s his best friend talking to him and it’s a friend of his — me — putting it together, so it is subjective. But at the same time, it’s clearly from his voice. There’s no third-party voice advancing the story. It’s really Roman guiding the discussion, so the viewers should take away that this is a firsthand account of what Roman thinks about himself, his life and the different episodes, as opposed to hearing it from other people judging him. 

“I think it allows for people who knew those stories and judged him to understand the person and make up their own mind on where they stand about his character.” Bouzereau also pointed out an example of achieving that goal with his film. 

“At one screening, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I walked into this movie hating him, and I came out understanding him. And I want to thank you for this movie.’ I thought that was a great way to explain what we were trying to accomplish. We’re not trying to change people’s minds about their view of Roman, but at least understand what he has to say and what his side of the story is.” 

“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” will screen on June 2 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.