LIKE me, you are probably not familiar with that many of the films Roman Polanski has directed. One, however, The Pianist, strikes me as a true masterpiece of modern cinema. It is the brilliantly portrayed true story of a Jew who managed to escape Hitler’s genocide and emerged, in one piece, from the ruins of Warsaw as the Russians moved in late in 1944.
But it is not for his film-making that Polanski has been in the news. For more than 30 years he has been dogged by the events of one night at the actor Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles home when he raped and sodomised a 13-year old girl, Samantha Geimer, whom he had plied with drugs and alcohol first. She told a jury she said “no” and “stop” repeatedly and told him she wanted to go home.
Following his arrest, he pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor but, facing the prospect of a 50-year sentence, he boarded a flight to London and then on to Paris. He has lived as a fugitive ever since, although in recent years he has been bolder about travelling to countries liable to extradite him. In France, his adopted home, he has lived openly and is generally accepted as a man who, in the words of Frédéric Mitterrand, the French culture minister, “has suffered enough”.
He has certainly suffered a lot. Polanski’s life story itself reads like a movie script and it is not too difficult to see how Polanski came to be contemptuous of authority. In March 1941, when he was seven, the German occupiers herded the Polanskis and some 18,000 other Jewish citizens of Krakow into a ghetto of just 310 houses.
For the next two years, they shared three cramped, dingy rooms with several other families. In February 1943, though, the Nazis came for Polanski’s mother Bula, who was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where, days later, she joined the million-strong list of Jews murdered in the gas chambers there. She had been four months’ pregnant at the time. Polanski’s father was also deported to a concentration camp but survived.
As if that were not bad enough, having escaped the communist East, his actress wife, Sharon Tate, who was then pregnant, was murdered by Charles Manson’s deranged group of followers. But late last month, Polanski travelled to Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to be honoured with a lifetime achievement award. He had little reason to be worried: after all he has a house in the exclusive ski resort of Gstaad. But he was unlucky and now the 76-year-old director faces extradition to the United States. The motives of the Swiss authorities are a mystery.
Undoubtedly, his arrest is scarcely an urgent priority. Nor is he likely to be a threat to the public. And he, more than likely, thinks it a little unfair that he has been arrested now when for years the authorities have not tried very hard to apprehend him before. Frédéric Mitterrand, the former president’s son, describes the recent turn of events as “absolutely horrifying”, but then the French have always had a relaxed attitude to the vicissitudes of artists: Joyce’s work was first published there.
Hollywood’s great and good have largely been supportive, pointing out that Geimer wants matters dropped: “Every time this case is brought to the attention of the court, great focus is made of me, my family, my mother and others. The attention is not pleasant to experience and is not worth maintaining over some irrelevant legal nicety, the continuation of the case.” Court documents have revealed that Polanski had agreed to pay her $500,000 (€350,000) as a settlement.
Others have asked questions about the original handling of the case and argue the relationship was sort of consensual. “I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape,” says Ghost star Whoopi Goldberg. Hang on there, Whoopi. Can there be such a thing as a rape-rape, a rape-rape-rape or a proper rape? If we go down that road, when would victims would ever report such a crime? It makes you wonder what Hollywood’s big shots would have done if a famous director’s teenage daughter had been plied with drink and drugs by a man 30 years her senior who was a swimming pool attendant working at the director’s Beverly Hills mansion?
He has sex with her but on the verge of sentencing he flees the country. Thirty years later, he is sent back to the United States to serve some time. Would there be a flicker of outrage then? But hasn’t Polanski been punished by a life of exclusion from the US, his Hollywood supporters ask? Isn’t he the victim of a censorious and vengeful America, some in France ask?
Forgive me, but is it somehow prudish to think that sodomising a drunk and reluctant 13-year-old is unacceptable behaviour? Polanski didn’t help himself in an interview he gave the year after the crime: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f***ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f**k young girls. Juries want to f**k young girls. Everyone wants to f**k young girls.”
No wonder then that, for American conservatives, Polanski has long been a rotting symbol of everything that was wrong with the pre-Reagan United States – a diet of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
But the moral majority have had their ranks swelled by converts. For whatever reason, the indulgence that liberal America extended to Michael Jackson no longer covers Polanski. Had he been picked up in Switzerland during George Bush’s term, The New York Times would probably have seen it as a distraction from the war on terror and yet another example of run-amok Puritanism. As it is, though, Hollywood apart, most Americans seem to think that Polanski must have what is coming to him and that those who call for bygones to be bygones fail to understand that the law is bigger than any of those who break it. Polanski said he did it but ran away. The fact that the girl he raped has since said she thinks it’s all water under the bridge is actually immaterial. Justice delayed is still, in the end, justice. There is no “greater good” reason why the law shouldn’t run its course.
Does any of this mean that we should not enjoy Roman Polanski’s films? That’s a difficult one but I tend to think art must be separated out from the artists who created it. If we didn’t, we would deprive ourselves of Wagner’s music and Rudyard Kipling’s writing because they held views which are no longer acceptable or fashionable.
And, yes, the same goes for Cathal O Searcaigh, the Donegal poet who has been accused of having exploitative relationships with Nepalese boys.
Ever since I first heard him give a recital in a grotty bar in Derry, I’ve thought his work extremely good, even if I can only fully appreciate him in translation. He should stay on the Leaving Cert.