Review: Polanski: A Biography by Christopher Sandford

by RS on December 26, 2015

PolanskiIn light of Mr. Polanski’s recent legal proceedings in Poland, I thought I would run this review I wrote a few years ago.
Polanski: A Biography
by Christopher Sandford
387 pages
Palgrave Macmillan

In a small and informal poll, I asked a group of writers to play a game of word association when they heard the name Roman Polanski. Although a few complimentary words were mentioned, the majority were linked, not surprisingly, to the two terrible and ugly events that occurred in Los Angeles so long ago. For many people, Polanski is the devil, no matter what they’ll find in Polanski: A Biography by Christopher Sandford, an honest and balanced account of the controversial filmmaker’s triumphs and tragedies.

There is no doubt that Polanski’s life is sometimes stranger than fiction, but readers who want the prurient details of Polanski’s tragedies or salacious gossip about his sexual peccadilloes will be disappointed that Sandford doesn’t deliver those goods.

Polanski opens at an early turning point in the filmmaker’s career: his departure from Poland to live and work in the West, specifically Paris. As he crossed the Polish border, he brought with him a print of his full-feature film, Knife in the Water, which had received mixed reviews in his native Poland—the state party Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka vividly expressed his reaction to the film by flinging an ashtray at the screen.

Whatever the Poles’ response, it really wouldn’t matter. Thanks to a small import company, Kanawha, which bought the American distribution rights for the film. Knife in the Water enjoyed a cult status in art clubs and on university campuses across the United States. But what eventually catapulted the film and Polanski to fame was its entry, by Kanawha, in the first New York Film Festival in 1963, and after a photo still of the film appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In an interview with Polanski, a New York Post writer said: “it [is] entirely possible that Polanski will be an unnaturally brilliant boy for the next thirty years until suddenly he will be decrepit. Meanwhile, what a life!”

The beauty of Polanski is it can be read out of sequence. For those who have had enough of the rehashing of the murders and the statutory rape case, these chapters can be set aside without missing a beat.

Film buffs will most likely be interested in the stories behind the camera, Polanski’s attention to detail, his obsessively numerous retakes (“Fandastic, fandastic! We go again.”), and his expertise in technical matters and overall capabilities about filmmaking. As noted by the cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, the cameraman on Sergio Leone’s The Good, Bad, and the Ugly, who also worked on Polanski’s productions of Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden:

Polanski was absolutely the best technical director I’d known in fifty years in the job, including those old masters Malle and Fellini. They were good, but Roman was better. [Polanski] knew as much about cameras and lenses, which he could identify at a glance, as I did, and I frequently had the impression that he could have easily made the film with just himself, the three actors and maybe a wardrobe assistant.

This impression by Delli Colli is not off-base. Sandford writes that the perfectionist Polanski, when he was a student at the National Film School at Lodz, “… proved himself to be a gifted and industrious student, who came top of his year in photography exams, and second and third, respectively, in editing and sound.”

There are those who will argue that both Polanski’s achievements and tragedies are inseparable, some naming as an example the director’s version of Macbeth—his first film after Sharon Tate’s death. Sandford cites several American reviewers who make that same connection to the very violent film and Manson. However, as the author notes, the British critics reviewed the film on its own merits and not as a cathartic exercise by the director. Even Polanski observed, “When you tell the story of a guy who’s beheaded, you have to show how they cut off his head. If you don’t, it’s like telling a dirty joke and leaving out the punchline.”

There always will be unfortunate correlations between his films and the two events. Even Roy Jenson, the character actor in Chinatown, who acted opposite Polanski in his cameo commented, “Roman did it explicitly because of Sharon Tate. He wouldn’t let another actor handle a shiv if he could help it. No one else was ever going to play that part.” How true is that? Only Polanski knows. However, there is an interesting aside, which Sandford notes, in the closing credits of the film: Polanski’s role is listed as The Man with a Knife a possible wink to the audience alluding to his first film? Again, only Polanski knows.

Sandford relies on many of these tidbits from more than 200 interviews with actors, writers, and other Polanski collaborators, as well as previously sealed court documents and magazine and broadcast interviews that the understandably media-shy director has granted over the years. And just as in the informal poll taken for this review, Sandford also discovered through these conversations the contrasting opinions people have of the director. Some think of him as “our greatest living director, but almost a saint regarding his personal experience; while certain others take a notably different line, favoring words like ‘evil’ and ‘bastard’ among the even more colorful epithets.”

Polanski is not a deep psychological study of the director—that should be left to the psychoanalysts—but it does provide readers with a very comprehensive and fascinating account of a talented yet flawed man who can charm his audience as well as repel them.

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