The documentary tells the extraordinary story of Roman Polanski’s life, beginning with his childhood in the Cracow ghetto, his first films in Poland, the move to Paris, his career in Europe and America, crowned with an Oscar for The Pianist, the tragedy of the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in Los Angeles, the controversy surrounding his arrest in 1977, through to his work and life today in France with his wife Emmanuelle Seigner. The conversations were recorded during Roman Polanski's stay in his home in Gstaad where he was under house arrest for several months after he was apprehended on his way to the Zurich Film Festival in 2009.

Friendly doco captures post-arrest reflections.

In 2009, Roman Polanski was invited to collect a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. Once he arrived in Switzerland, he entered a personal hell. Police arrested Polanski the moment he got off the plane. Amidst a media storm, Polanski was eventually committed to house arrest in Gstaad. The charges, laid in California in 1977, were over his sexual misconduct relating to one Samantha Geimer, who was then 13 years-old. For months Polanski sweated over the fact that the Swiss may extradite him to the US where, if convicted, he could face a heavy sentence. Polanski had spent weeks in Chino prison before he had fled into exile all those years ago on the Geimer charges and had no urge to taste 'hard time’ again.

a case of hiding in plain sight

One of the things Polanski did while agonising over his fate in this fraught atmosphere was to submit to an interview conducted by old friend and one-time producer Andrew Braunsberg – he did Macbeth (1971), What? (1973) and The Tenant (1976) for the director. The 20 hours of film that came out of these sessions is the basis for this strange and curious documentary; a kind of 'mini-bio’ of Polanski’s life and times that pretends to be frank and intimate, but on close analysis seems a case of hiding in plain sight. This pic and its low-key tone of reflection and lessons learned seems a transparent rejoinder to Marina Zenovich’s 2008 doco about Polanski’s statutory rape case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which was compassionate and harsh to all concerned in equal measure.

Still, there’s a certain truth that emerges when people are seen to be dodging 'bullets’ in the form of accusations to do with personal failings (let alone crimes). Or more simply, how brave do we expect anybody to be when they’re asked to reflect on their choices, especially when it’s a life lived in public and where shame, outrage and tragedy have been such dogged companions?

Polanski, born in 1933, was in his mid-70s when the movie was shot, over seven months into his house arrest, but he looks decades younger. He talks fast, and even though he has not lived in Poland for years, his familiar – and I have to say charming – accent drawls and strangles English in a way that suggests a mind that’s outpacing language at a rapid rate. A man who likes to use his hands, Polanski’s body language here – reserved, abrupt bursts followed by stillness – has the distracted air of one who seems fragile and even a little out of it. But then, the movie reminds us that Polanski started off as an actor and a good one. Everyone knows that every interview from anyone is a kind of performance. But Polanski avoids sentiment and self-pity even if the film seems constructed as a celebration, and a legacy. It’s also inescapably, given the context, a plea for understanding in terms of Polanski’s crime. (Geimer is seen here, grown-up, in news footage, 'forgiving’ the filmmaker for his violation.)

Polanski met Braunsberg in London in 1964, when the director was already famous. A long and deep friendship is evident not only in the easy back-and-forth of the dialogue here, but in the gentle, shared way Braunsberg eases and urges Polanski – via leading questions – through a tale that’s haunted by nightmares and death. Once past the childhood years under the Nazis – terrible tales full of black comedy and the agony of the fear of betrayal and separation – the film becomes less an 'interview’ and more a chat between pals with a common history. Some critics have castigated Braunsberg for his unprofessional style but this seems to me to be beside the point. Polanski, who breaks down often on camera throughout, was clearly under tremendous pressure and Braunsberg makes a good prompt, and a wilfull sympathiser whose main job, it seems, is to keep the film’s star talking. There are some truly moving moments and revelations; Braunsberg was the one who took the call the day Polanski was told his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered, with other friends, by Manson’s 'Family’.

The Q&A is augmented by much use of home movies, news reports, loads of stills, and the occasional on-screen title to speed past a complication or boring bit of exposition. There are clips from his movies including Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul de Sac (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002), but the treatment of Polanski’s 'movie-life’ isn’t deep, or detailed. Indeed his films aren’t tabled here as individual works at all; they’re mere illustrations of a biographical fact or two.

The film was produced by Braunsberg and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, who has, for years, made special features on filmmakers for DVD releases, many of them titles from the '70s. Bouzereau’s style is reverent – it has to be, he’s in servitude to the studio whose paying his bills – but he mistakes facts for insight, and shows little feel for the nuances of history. His direction here, perhaps under the influence of Braunsberg, who produced, and maybe Polanski himself, is like a public service announcement or one of those seven-minute spots for arts media: blunt, emotive, and superficial. What rises to the surface and sparkles are Polanski’s gifts as a raconteur, his fierce intelligence and his guile. In the end, he does appear chastened and remorseful over the Geimer affair. But then, he’s always been a survivor.

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1 hour 34 min
In Cinemas 21 February 2013,