Space man: the genius of Roman Polanski

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

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.

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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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