The Director Discusses His Life Tragedies
Roman Polanski turned 80 in August, and his new film “Venus in Fur” will be released this month. He discusses his childhood in the Krakow ghetto, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and his abuse of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. “We all just tried to forget about it,” he says.
There’s an Eames chair in Roman Polanski’s Paris office near the Champs Elysées. The seat back is broken, but Polanski is attached to the old armchair. He bought it together with Sharon Tate, his second wife, who was murdered in 1969. Tate’s slaying is just one of the great calamities in Polanski’s life. The first happened during his childhood in the Krakow ghetto, when both of his parents, who were Polish Jews, were sent to a concentration camp. His father survived, but his mother died in Auschwitz.
As a young man, Polanski had difficulty finding his bearings. The third calamity occurred eight years after Tate was killed by followers of the Satanist Charles Manson, when Polanski sexually abused 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in Los Angeles. He was tried in the United States and spent 42 days in prison. But after he had completed his sentence, the judge withdrew from the deal that had been reached by the district attorney and lawyers for Polanski and Geimer, which prompted the director to flee to Europe. He was arrested again in Zürich in 2009. In an interview with SPIEGEL in September, Geimer made it clear that she had forgiven Polanski long ago.
Today Polanski, born in Paris in 1933 and raised in Poland, is Europe’s most famous film director, known for classics like “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974). In 2003 he received the Oscar for best director for “The Pianist”. He keeps the statuette on a shelf opposite the broken Eames chair. Polanski turned 80 in August. His new film, “Venus in Fur,” opens in German theaters on Nov. 21. It is the film adaptation of a play, which in turn is based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, on whose name the term “masochism” is based. Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s current wife, plays the lead.
A large-format painting by an English pop artists hangs on the wall above Polanski’s desk. It depicts the silhouette of a nude woman. Upon closer inspection, the image turns out to be made up of individual puzzle pieces.
SPIEGEL recently sat down with Roman Polanski for a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the release of his new film.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Polanski, your wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, is pretty sexy and seductive in your new film.
Polanski: I’m proud of that.
SPIEGEL: As a director, is it possible to be unbiased when you’re married to the female lead?
Polanski: Well, we’ve been together for quite a while — 25 years. And we’ve also made a few films together already. When you work with someone with whom you’re also in a relationship, you have to be stricter and tougher with that person. Unfortunately, I can’t do my wife any special favors during a film shoot.
SPIEGEL: The film depicts a duel of sorts between an actress and a director. Is that a situation with which you’re familiar?
Polanski: The film doesn’t delve into our intimate relationship. It’s more of a satire. It’s ironic and sarcastic. To be honest, we laughed a lot during filming.
SPIEGEL: In “Venus in Fur,” the actress says to the director: “You are the director. It’s your job to torture actors.” Is that partly the voice of director Polanski speaking?
Polanski: I’ve certainly tortured actors in time — not intentionally, of course. But sometimes actors have trouble accepting their role, especially men. Men don’t really like to follow instructions. There’s no problem with directing women.
SPIEGEL: With men, everyone wants to be the leader.
Polanski: I see that you understand what I’m saying. That’s why I’ve always gotten along well with women. It was already the case with my second film, “Repulsion,” starring Catherine Deneuve. With her, it was like a tango. The same was true of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.” But then I encountered Faye Dunaway when I filmed “Chinatown.” She was very difficult. I nearly came to a halt.
SPIEGEL: Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra when you were filming “Rosemary’s Baby” with her. Sinatra didn’t like the fact that his wife was in a film that you were directing, and he kept showing up on the set.
Polanski: Until the day he sent his attorney to the set to serve Mia with divorce papers. Mia was devastated. I think she really loved him. She was crying when she called me over and said: “He just sent his attorney.” I didn’t think it was a very elegant way to end a relationship.
SPIEGEL: Could it be that you get along better with actresses because there is often a sort of sexual tension between a director and an actress?
Polanski: It’s possible.
SPIEGEL: You were also together with Nastassja Kinski, a teenager at the time, when you filmed “Tess” with her in 1979.
Polanski: Tell me: Are my women the only thing that interests you for your article?
SPIEGEL: You’re the one who has just made a film about the relationship between a director and an actress, and about sex and power. Isn’t it a justified assumption that all of this would also have something to do with you and your life?
Polanski: Don’t try to find phony reasons to ask me these questions. I’m a big boy.
SPIEGEL: Sorry about that.
Polanski: I had purely professional relationships with most of the actresses, practically all of them, in fact — with the exception of Emmanuelle, Sharon and maybe Nastassja. Nastassja and I were no longer together when I filmed “Tess.” No, there have only been two women in my life. I once had … you probably know that Sharon Tate was my wife. I met her during the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”
SPIEGEL: You fell in love.
Polanski: Right at the beginning, when we were filming in the Dolomites.
SPIEGEL: You write in your autobiography that you took LSD together and listened to music, and that that was how you got together.
Polanski: It was before we started filming. Of course, we didn’t take any LSD during filming. Don’t forget that LSD was still legal at the time. But Sharon and I were not granted a future together. It didn’t last long.
SPIEGEL: In August 1969, members of Charles Manson’s group murdered your wife and four of her friends at your house in Los Angeles. Tate was pregnant with your child. You had been in London shortly before that, but you stayed a few days longer, which is why you weren’t there on the night it happened.
Polanski: I often used to wonder how I made it through that period.
SPIEGEL: Do you know the answer now?
Polanski: I just don’t think about it anymore. I had to have a moment when I stopped thinking about it. When it happened, my friends said to me: You have to get back to work. But it’s impossible to work in that situation. You’re incapable of working. The only thing that truly brings relief is time. Nothing else.
SPIEGEL: How long did it take you?
Polanski: A long time. Shortly after the murder, I met with a friend, a psychiatrist. He said it would take me at least four years until I could function normally again. Back then, it seemed like a long time to me. But it turned out to be more than four years. I wonder how a psychiatrist can be so wrong.
‘I Remember Every Detail’
SPIEGEL: The man who ordered the murder, Charles Manson, a hippie who went crazy, has a tattoo of a swastika on his forehead. Twenty-five years earlier, as a boy in the Krakow ghetto, you had already been tormented by people with swastikas. Is it hard for you to remember that childhood?
Polanski: I remember every detail.
SPIEGEL: You came to terms with your memories in your 2002 film “The Pianist.” Today you are one of the last contemporary witnesses who can explain his experiences in the Krakow ghetto during the German occupation. Do you talk about it? With your children, for example?
Polanski: It’s complicated. I try to remember my relationship with my father. After my father returned from the Mauthausen concentration camp, he would sometimes get together with other survivors. And then they would talk about the horror and how they survived. How my father used the paper from cement bags to bandage his infections. How they kept the paper in place with wire to keep away the fleas. I didn’t like those stories. Most of all, I didn’t like it when he talked about the punishments.
SPIEGEL: Did you understand what was happening when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939?
Polanski: I was six years old. But yes, I understood. The adults had been talking about it for years. About their fear, the hatred, the Poles’ patriotic stand against the Germans. The first Germans I encountered were soldiers who were marching through Warsaw. Do you remember the scene in “The Pianist?” That’s exactly how I experienced it. We watched them, and many turned their backs to them. My father stood next to me and said in Polish: “Those motherfuckers, those motherfuckers.”
SPIEGEL: One day, you had to watch as your father and others were rounded up to be taken to a concentration camp.
Polanski: I ran over to him. But he chased me away and said: Go away, go away! I knew he was trying to save my life. I instinctively wanted to cling to my father. I would have used every possible excuse to stay with him. A child is an optimist by nature. He believes that everything will end well. But I knew what was at stake. Death was lurking for you at the time. So I ran away. That was how my father saved my life.
SPIEGEL: Your mother had already been deported by then. Did you know that she was no longer alive?
Polanski: No. We knew that she had been taken to a concentration camp, to Auschwitz. I always believed she would come back one day. After the war, when my father had already returned, I still believed that my mother was alive. I think my father didn’t even know at the time that the transport that included my mother had been taken directly to the gas chambers. My sister was also in Auschwitz. She survived.
SPIEGEL: You write in your autobiography that, as a child during the occupation, you often went to the movies to come to terms with what was happening.
Polanski: At the time, I didn’t know that I was coming to terms with anything. Going to the movies was the only form of amusement I had.
SPIEGEL: What kinds of film did you watch?
Polanski: German films. Others weren’t allowed. They weren’t even propaganda films. But among Poles it was considered unpatriotic to go to the movies. There was graffiti that read: “Only pigs go to the movies!” I was one of those pigs.
SPIEGEL: How does one cope with all of that? You survived the ghetto, your mother died, and your father was in a concentration camp. And when lunatics later massacred your pregnant wife, didn’t you lose all faith in humanity?
Polanski: I don’t believe that you would start philosophizing if something similar were to happen to you. You just take it personally. You don’t realize what it’s doing to you. You don’t think about the world. Why me? Perhaps because the event was so outlandish. Not just for me, but for everyone.
SPIEGEL: Were there revenge fantasies? Didn’t you want to kill the person who did this to you?
Polanski: Of course you have revenge fantasies. If I had found one of them immediately afterwards, I would probably have reacted in precisely that way. But there is also the rational voice inside of me, my convictions. I was always opposed to capital punishment. But now I was confronted with the question: Should these people be condemned to this punishment? What would that achieve? For the world, it was an event. But what about me? My love was gone. In the end, what difference does it make how she was taken from me? By cancer or a heart attack? When you lose someone, you lose someone. The circumstances add to the tragedy, but only for outsiders — not for the one who is affected personally.
SPIEGEL: The Manson group’s murder of your wife in 1969 also marks the end of the carefree 1960s. The next day the world was suddenly a different place. People became suspicious and paranoid, and they started locking their doors.
Polanski: Yes. And at the same time, man had just landed on the moon for the first time. That was an even greater turning point. It stood for the technological progress of mankind. We felt smarter from then on, and yet the murders also shocked the world. It was partly because the incident had occurred in a place, in the hills above Hollywood, (a place) that was actually very peaceful and affluent.
SPIEGEL: After that, you left Los Angeles and went to live in Europe. Nevertheless, four years later, in 1973, you returned to Hollywood and filmed “Chinatown.”
Polanski: I never wanted to go back there again. It took a lot of convincing from Bob Evans, the head of Paramount, as well as Jack Nicholson. But once I was there, I began living again: parties, friends, girls. It was a different planet back then. When I think about that time today, it feels as if I had lived on a different planet. The mood and the people were different. People celebrated precisely because the lightheartedness of the 60s was over. They were happy. And of course there was no AIDS. AIDS ended it all later on.
SPIEGEL: You became friends with Jack Nicholson at the time.
Polanski: He played the lead in “Chinatown.” But we were already friends before. He often visited me at my house in Gstaad. I taught him how to ski.
SPIEGEL: It was in Nicholson’s house in Los Angeles where the next event that shaped your life took its course.
SPIEGEL: Samantha Geimer, who you sexually abused in Nicholson’s house when she was 13, has just written her autobiography. Much of the book is about you.
Polanski: I’m quite sure that it’s probably not how I remember it.
SPIEGEL: Have you read the book?
Polanski: No. But I know about it, of course.
SPIEGEL: Given the circumstances, she speaks very kindly of you.
Polanski: She does?
SPIEGEL: We met with Geimer recently. She holds no grudges against you. But you know that, of course.
Polanski: Yes, I know that. All I can say is that I’m truly sorry about what’s happened to her in all these years, and how she was dragged through the media. I always tried to keep her name out of things until it all spread out. I don’t think that you will hear more about this from me now. I’ll read the book when it comes out here in France.
SPIEGEL: You wrote a letter to Geimer in 2009 and finally apologized to her.
Polanski: Because I had seen her on TV. It was important to me to finally see her.
SPIEGEL: Couldn’t you have apologized earlier than 32 years after the incident?
Polanski: There was no reason.
Polanski: We all just tried to forget about it. I’m not going to talk about it.
SPIEGEL: Do you perhaps take a different view of the abuse of a 13-year-old today, now that you have a 20-year-old daughter yourself?
Polanski: Look, it was many years after the incident that I had my own daughter. It has now been more than 35 years. Would you say that I’ve been on probation long enough? If you were my probation officer, would you say that it’s okay now?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps that’s what one would say.
Polanski: There’s your answer.
‘I Doubt I Would Have Survived as a Pessimist’
SPIEGEL: You filmed “Tess,” with Nastassja Kinski, right after the scandal. Coincidentally, it’s about a young woman who is sexually abused and suffers from the consequences for the rest of her life. Was that perhaps your apology?
Polanski: I don’t know. “Tess” is based on a book that Sharon had recommended to me. I’m not good at explaining these things. You’re constantly asking me to explain my films. It’s as if you would ask a poet to explain his poems. I know you think it’s interesting. But that’s your problem.
SPIEGEL: Well, here’s one more for you: In “The Ghostwriter,” you told the story of a famous man who couldn’t travel abroad because of his legal problems. The material must have appealed to you in some way.
Polanski: Of course, for you as a journalist, that can’t be a coincidence.
SPIEGEL: You yourself haven’t been able to travel freely for decades. Shortly after you filmed “The Ghostwriter,” you were arrested in Switzerland because of the Geimer case. In real life, you had to suffer consequences similar to those faced by the character in your film.
Polanski: Yes, and I’m dealing with the consequences. That’s one reason I try to avoid the press. An interview is an unpleasant event for me. Why should I submit myself to this? Dipping back into the tragedies of my life with you, which is dominant in this interview, is of course unpleasant for me. It’s a never-ending story, that incident with Samantha. And now there’s Samantha’s book. It never ends. Why on earth, after 30 years of living as a free man, did they suddenly ask for my arrest?
SPIEGEL: A district attorney in Los Angeles wanted to become the California attorney general. Arresting you seemed like good publicity for him.
Polanski: I became his battle horse.
SPIEGEL: What was it like when you had to spend two months in a Swiss prison in 2009, followed by seven months under house arrest?
Polanski: Thanks for asking. What do you think it was like? It was bad for my family, especially for the children. They suffered a lot. Losing your father for almost a year at that age is terrible. And I had to finish editing “The Ghostwriter.” Not being able to turn in a film is the worst thing that can happen. The lives of hundreds of people and a lot of money depend on it. I did have an old computer in prison, but there was no Internet.
SPIEGEL: Well, it was a prison.
Polanski: So I had the rough cut sent to me in prison on a DVD. I made notes of what had to be edited. Then I gave the notes to my attorney, who had to show them to the police. Of course, they didn’t give a shit. Finally, the attorney was able to send the notes to my editor, who then implemented my changes. It was far too complicated. At some point I spoke with the warden (the prison director). He almost felt embarrassed for having to keep me locked up. He said that it wasn’t a problem, and that my editor could come to the prison and bring along his editing computers. And so we sat in a room where prisoners normally peeled onions and edited the film. There was a terrible smell of onions. The warden became a friend.
SPIEGEL: A friend?
Polanski: Yes. We used to play chess in the prison on Sundays. After I was released, he visited me here in Paris, and he’s also visited me in Gstaad.
SPIEGEL: One of your oldest friends, the producer Andrew Braunsberg, said that he doesn’t know anyone who has gone through as much as you have.
Polanski: Now that’s really an exaggeration. There are people who have endured far more than I have. For one thing, I’ve always been healthy. I look at other people and feel guilty.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the calamities in your life somehow led to you becoming the artist you are today?
Polanski: So you’re one of those people who believe that an artist has to suffer? That means I’ve been lucky that I suffered that much?
SPIEGEL: That might be a little cynical.
Polanski: I’m not cynical.
SPIEGEL: Despite everything, have you become a happy person in the end?
Polanski: Yes, even though I couldn’t have imagined it at some points in my life.
SPIEGEL: You once said that perhaps everything is determined.
Polanski: Yes, perhaps. I’m not religious. But that’s not the point. If you don’t believe that God decides everything, then it’s science. Then we believe in the Big Bang. And during the Big Bang, every piece of matter found its spot on its own.
SPIEGEL: You must be an optimist.
Polanski: Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today with you. I doubt I would have survived as a pessimist.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever been able to watch your film “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” which you shot with Sharon Tate, again?
Polanski: Oh, it’s like one the objects here on this shelf: the Palme d’Or, the Oscar, the Berlin Film Festival bear. They are just up there. When I look at the awards, I think that I ought to remember the feeling I had when they were presented to me. But there’s nothing there. They’ve just gathered dust. You think to yourself that maybe you should call someone to dust them off.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Polanski, we thank you for this interview