Roman Polanski and the Theatre of the Absurd

Acclaimed film director Roman Polanski has been detained by Swiss authorities for a sex-crime committed on US soil in 1977. While his lawyers fight attempts to extradite him, the auteur should have plenty time to consider the Kafkaesque absurdity of his position. By: Kevin Bloom

In Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist, a winner of three Academy Awards, there’s a scene that neatly encapsulates the director’s Kafkaesque bent. Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody, is providing Emily Fox’s character Dorota with an update on Nazi law.

It’s an official decree, no Jews allowed in the parks,’ says Szpilman.

‘What, are you joking?’

‘No, I’m not. I would suggest we sit down on a bench, but that’s also an official decree, no Jews allowed on benches.’

‘This is absurd.’

‘So, we should just stand here and talk, I don’t think we’re not allowed to do that.’

Last Saturday, Polanski’s keen grasp of ‘The Absurd’ played out for him in real life, when he was detained by Swiss authorities after arriving in the country to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich film festival. The charge: a 1977 Los Angeles child-sex case to which Polanski pleaded guilty, and due to which he fled the United States in 1978 to escape prosecution.

On the surface, what’s absurd about the matter is that the thirteen-year-old victim, Samantha Geimer – now 45 – long ago forgave the film-maker and joined defence lawyers in urging the dismissal of the case. Also, as his lawyer in the current affair points out, Polanski can hardly be considered a high-risk repeat offender. ‘Humanly, it seems to me unbearable that more than thirty years after the incident a man of 76 who obviously poses no danger to society and whose artistic and personal reputation are clearly established, should spend a single day in prison,’ Herve Temine told France’s Le Figaro.

Of course, even though the original Los Angeles judge – who at the time was accused by the defence team of colluding with prosecutors – has since died, US authorities have stubbornly refused to give up the chase. Polanski is being held in Switzerland under the aegis of an international alert issued by the US government in 2005.

Which is where the absurdity really starts to approach the level of a Kafka novel or Beckett play. Polanski owns a chalet in the picturesque Swiss town of Gstaad, and is a regular visitor to the country. His arrival in Zurich on Saturday, September 26, was meant to mark another triumphal moment in the life of a Polish-French Jew who by all accounts should have been gassed alongside his mother in Auschwitz.

Polanski’s escape from the Krakow Ghetto in 1943, his experience of hiding out for the remainder of the war in a barn, and the murder of his pregnant second wife Sharon Tate by members of the ‘Manson Family’ in 1969, might well have provided an extenuating argument as per the psychological evaluation ordered by the trial judge in 1977. Instead, Polanski followed his innate instinct to flee – and so he is now imprisoned by a nation whose role in safeguarding Nazi loot is an open secret, while awaiting extradition to another nation that has showered him with his art form’s highest accolades in his enforced absence.

The final absurdity in the story appears to draw on both the realist horror of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the deadpan irony of Chinatown (1974). On Thursday September 24, two days before the celebrated auteur was arrested by Swiss authorities, Susan Atkins, one of four members of the Manson family convicted of Sharon Tate’s murder, died in a California prison.


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