Before he became cinema’s enfant terrible and a fugitive from U.S. justice, and long before he won an Academy Award, director Roman Polanski was a small boy trapped in a nightmarish childhood of turmoil and loss.
His parents were sent to Nazi death camps, and his mother died at Auschwitz. Polanski escaped the horrors of Poland’s Krakow ghetto, living off the charity of strangers in the countryside until his father reappeared to claim him.
It is easy to see parallels between Polanski’s own traumatic, rootless boyhood and the plot of his new movie, “Oliver Twist,” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a penniless orphan who wanders from a workhouse into a gang, searching for a place in the world.
Today, Polanski is among the world’s most admired directors. Though a sex crime dating back nearly three decades has cast a shadow over his career, he has found work, financing and artistic support in Europe.
‘Justice and suffering’
Those close to the 72-year-old director say he was attracted by Oliver Twist’s story line of suffering and salvation, which also ran through his Oscar-winning Holocaust movie, “The Pianist.”
“Polanski sees Oliver Twist as a survivor, too, someone who lived through difficult conditions,” said French producer Alain Sarde, who first worked with the director on the 1976 film “The Tenant.” “I think the themes of justice and suffering are very dear to him.”
Beyond that, colleagues say, Polanski simply wanted to make a movie for children — specifically, for his own two school-age kids. They even appear briefly in the movie.
“He said, ‘They haven’t seen my movies, they’re too young, and I want to make a movie for them,”’ said Robert Benmussa, a French producer who has worked on several Polanski films. Many ideas came up — including an adaptation of Lemony Snicket tales — but Polanski kept coming back to “Oliver Twist” because of its depth and lack of naivete, Benmussa said.
Fans of the macabre masterpiece “Rosemary’s Baby” or the noirish “Chinatown” might be surprised at Polanski’s creative U-turn to make a children’s classic. But Polanski has always defied easy categorizations, in his personal life and as a director.
Dark past still looms
He astonished many in the film world in 2002 with the “The Pianist.” Until then, his best work was three decades behind him, and his films were often overshadowed by his own turbulent personal life.
Polanski’s second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was pregnant when she was killed in 1969 by followers of serial killer Charles Manson. In 1978, public sympathy for Polanski evaporated when he fled the United States after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
“I am widely renowned, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf,” the approximately 5 1/2 foot director wrote in his 1984 autobiography, “Roman.” Polanski’s office declined an interview request.
The filmmaker’s past made headlines again this summer during a libel trial in London that had a jury probing both his heartbreak and his sex life.
He won his lawsuit against Vanity Fair magazine over an article that accused him of seducing a model while heading to Tate’s funeral, allegedly telling her: “I will make another Sharon Tate out of you.”
The magazine’s publisher eventually accepted that the incident did not happen before Tate’s funeral, but about two weeks later. And after the trial, the model in question gave an interview denying that Polanski spoke to her that night.
Polanski testified by video link from Paris because he feared he could be extradited to the United States if he traveled to London. He called the Vanity Fair claim an “abominable lie” that dishonored his late wife’s memory.
With Polanski’s past so often in the spotlight, it can be easy to forget that he has embarked on a new life. He lives in Paris with his third wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their children, and has slowly shed his reputation as a partier. Friends say he is a devoted father who remains young at heart.
Exiled from the United States, Polanski shoots in Europe and generally works with European producing partners. He has nonetheless managed to attract Hollywood stars — like Sigourney Weaver in 1994’s “Death and the Maiden” and Harrison Ford in 1988’s “Frantic.”
Drawing on painful memoriesUntil “The Pianist,” none of Polanski’s movies had the power of “Rosemary’s Baby,” the occult thriller starring Mia Farrow as a woman who suspects the worst about her unborn baby, or “Chinatown,” the detective story that gave the slight, puckish director a memorable cameo as a thug who slits open Jack Nicholson’s nostril with a knife.
Polanski had long dreamed of telling a Holocaust story, though he waited years to find the right one. “The Pianist” — though it told the story of a Polish musician during World War II — drew on some of the director’s childhood memories.
They are not something Polanski discusses freely.
“Roman Polanski is not putting himself out there and going, ‘This is my experience,”’ said actor Thomas Kretschmann, who played the German captain in “The Pianist.” “But you always feel that he talks out of experience.”
During shooting, “he talked later on about it, when we became a little more familiar, but I always had the sense that this is something very personal to him,” said Kretschmann, who says he still draws constantly on Polanski’s less-is-more acting approach.
“The Pianist” won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, then took home Oscars in 2003 for best director, best actor (Adrien Brody) and best screenplay.
Because of his fugitive status, Polanski did not attend the ceremony in Los Angeles. Instead, he issued a brief statement:
“I am deeply moved to be rewarded for the work which relates to the events so close to my own life, the events that led me to comprehend that art can transform pain.”