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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Poldark is the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers insist it is.

So Poldark has become the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene to spice things up. We’ve sat through them in outrage-courting Game of Thrones, in cosy Sunday night drama Downton Abbey, and even at the opera. Now, they’ve come to BBC period adaptations, too.

This is how the scene plays out (a detailed description of the events leading up to the rape follow):

Poldark (Aidan Tuner) turns up at his friend Elizabeth’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, in a rage. She suggests he come back tomorrow morning. He refuses. She suggests they relocate downstairs. He refuses. She suggests he should not be in her bedroom. He refuses to leave, and shuts the door behind him.

They argue about Elizabeth’s plan to marry an enemy of Poldark’s, a decision that disgusts him. She asks him to leave, again. “I’m sorry you feel like this, but I cannot help it,” she tells him. “Oh, you’ve never been able to help anything, have you?” he says, mockingly, adding, “well, perhaps you can’t help this either,” kissing her forcefully before she pushes him off her.

Poldark threatens her, approaching her again as he insists, “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth. I’d be glad of your assurance that you will not go through with it.” She says again that she will be married. Poldark kisses her again against her will. She tells him she hates him. “You would not dare,” she pleads, looking at the bed. “I would, and so would you,” he says. He pushes her onto the bed. You can guess the rest.

Of course, this is a rape scene. Some say it isn’t – because Elizabeth shows signs of enjoying the sex, and she’s nice to Poldark the next morning, because she has (or has had) feelings for him. None of these things are relevant. Poldark verbally pressured and physically forced a woman who was refusing to have sex with him. That’s rape.

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers and cast insist it is. Andrew Graham, the son of Poldark novelist Winston Graham, who was a consultant on the BBC's current screen adaptation, said:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth's immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”

His opinion was supported by Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield as well as Turner – who said the scene “seems consensual”.

This is not how consent works. Consent is not something you can assume based on “earlier scenes”. And it’s certainly not something you can retrospectively achieve based on the “immediate reactions” or “later mixed emotions” of someone you forced to have sex with you. That’s just you attempting to justify the fact that you raped someone.

The idea that Poldark knows Elizabeth so well that he knows what she truly wants (sex with me, the man of her dreams, duh!!) might seem romantic. But no love is so great that it imbues the lover with the ability to read minds. Implying that Poldark knew best peddles the dangerous myth that when women say no, they mean yes. Beliefs like this create rapists. The only way to know what someone wants is to ask them, and to listen to what they say. Elizabeth said no.

Adapting period material can be tricky – not least in its presentation of women, gender dynamics, and sex. The Poldark books are from the Fourties, and set in the eighteenth century. It’s a miserable state of affairs when the understanding of consent presented on primetime television, in 2016, is as dated.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.