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Space man: the genius of Roman Polanski

A new retrospective of the Polish director's work begins in London.

Roman Polanski
Putting pain on the screen: Roman Polanski (Photograph: Getty Images)

Another decade, another Roman Polanski retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. (Though it was still called the National Film Theatre when the last one rolled around.) Since the previous season of his work in 2004, the director has made one earthy Dickens adaptation (Oliver Twist), one tremendously sly thriller (The Ghost) and Carnage, a rather flat, academic film of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage. He also spent a spell in prison and then under house arrest in 2009 and 2010 on historic rape charges  dating back to 1977. A thorough documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, examines the case and its ambiguities.

The first leg of the two-month season takes us up to the director’s 1979 Hardy adaptation, Tess. The strike rate diminishes somewhat beyond that point, but there is hardly a film in this initial stretch that you would want to miss, from his taut 1962 debut Knife in the Water through to the controlled nightmares of Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and their beautifully mounted comic cousin, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). The magnificent sunlit noir, Chinatown (1974), needs no extra praise here. But how about The Tenant (1976), Polanski’s once-reviled psychological thriller about the timid Trelkowski (played by the director himself), who is consumed by the spirit of his apartment’s not-quite-dead-yet previous inhabitant—has everyone cottoned on to its slippery magic by now?

It is astonishing, in this age of complex special effects, that the most effective moments in the movie were created in front of the camera, rather than in a post-production facility. The scene in which a feverish Trelkowski reaches from his sick-bed for a bottle of water, only to find that he cannot pick it up because it is only a photograph, gets a delighted gasp out of me each time I see it. Then there are the weird dimensions of the apartment, which make it appear that Trelkowski is shrinking. When I met him in 1999, Polanski drew diagrams on a restaurant napkin to explain to me how this effect was achieved. Then he spilt his coffee all over that lovely memento, and I tried to act like it didn’t matter.

I’ve always loved The Tenant but its brilliance was brought sharply into focus by the release in 2003 of The Pianist, Polanski’s extraordinary adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s wartime memoir. The director had long been renowned for his sinister and claustrophobic use of space, not least in his apartment trilogy: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant. But The Pianist is the unifying work which illuminates those preceding films, making them appear to be dry runs for an autobiography.

Polanski had spent decades wrestling with the idea of making a film that touched on his childhood experiences in the Cracow ghetto. In 1990, he turned down Steven Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List because the material was still too raw for him. Finally he confronted his pain on film by refracting it through the story of Szpilman’s struggle to survive as the Nazis swamped Warsaw. An archetypal Polanski hero, he is confined to one apartment and attic room after another, powerless to intervene in the atrocities he witnesses from his window. See the picture in close proximity to The Tenant and the parallels between the films, and between Trelkowksi and Szpilman, two innocents hounded and hunted in their own neighbourhoods, become mutually enriching.

I have a minor personal connection to The Pianist. Along with a couple of thousand other young men, I attended the open casting call in 2001 for the role of Szpilman. An advertisement had appeared in the national press inviting 1.77m-tall, “sensitive, vulnerable and charismatic” actors of vaguely Eastern European appearance to audition for the lead. I had no idea how many wildly differing varieties of 1.77m Eastern European men there could be (some of them Asian or Afro-Caribbean, and stretching above 1.82m) until I arrived at the Actors’ Centre on a chilly Saturday morning. Or rather, until I joined the end of a queue several streets away from the Actors’ Centre. We all stamped our feet in the cold and mulled over our chances. We wished each other good luck. Someone called out to no one in particular: “See you at the Oscars.” 

Six hours, several bunions and a mild case of frostbite later, I had my Polaroid taken, and was told by the casting director that I probably didn’t look Jewish enough for the part. “Oy vey!” I wanted to exclaim to her. “You might have told that to those former classmates who never missed a chance to malign my Mediterranean complexion under an all-purpose blanket of playground anti-Semitism.”

When Adrien Brody’s name was announced as the successful candidate some months later, there can be few among us 2,000-odd hopefuls who didn’t consider him a perfect fit. So fully does he inhabit Szpilman’s experience that the picture has no need to engineer our sympathy. The simple sight of Brody wasting away before our eyes, his initial haughtiness crumbling into humility, is distressing enough. (For most of the picture, the brim of his hat looks meatier than he does.)

Brody was already established as a striking, discerning actor. His face, long and thin as a violin, was capable of reflecting a profound anguish. Which is where Polanski came in. He gave Brody proper donkey-work to do. He had to shed 13kg from his already slender frame to play Szpilman, a concert pianist who managed through luck and perseverance to survive in occupied, shellshocked Warsaw after his family had been carted off to the gas chambers. Brody’s ordeal didn’t end with dropping a few waist-sizes. On set, Polanski had him lugging around dustbins full of Polish encyclopaedias. Think of all those consonants.

Then there was the loneliness. “Being on your own is one thing,” he told me after the film opened. “But when you’re embracing and encouraging this intense sadness, and you’re away from your loved ones with no end in sight, it can be very difficult. I knew it was going to be a tough process, but I wasn’t prepared for the psychological damage of being isolated. I had over a month and a half with no other actors there - just me and the crew in a room, six days a week, 16 hours a day. I would put earplugs in. Roman would communicate with the crew in Polish. I’d go sit in my trailer when we weren’t shooting, and play my keyboard. But I was always alone.”

Cue 2,000 acting hopefuls breathing a sigh of relief that their auditions counted for nought.

The Roman Polanski season runs at BFI Southbank until the end of February.

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