Roman Polanski is released on bail to his home in Gstaad

It’d be hard to find an isolation as splendid as this one.

The mountains are swathed in snow, the trees are flecked with white and the ski lodges are getting ready for high season. Film director Roman Polanski traded prison for a veritable winter wonderland Friday as he began an indefinite period of house arrest up in the Swiss Alps.

Instead of a jail cell, Polanski now has free run of his three-story villa here in Gstaad. Instead of fellow inmates, the people around him include his wife and their two children.

And while he’s banned from nipping down into the village to browse the Hermes, Cartier and Rolex stores, there’s no preventing local delights from being sent up to him at the “Milky Way,” his home on the north edge of town.

It’s a taste of relative freedom for Polanski after two months’ in prison following his arrest Sept. 26, when he landed in Switzerland to collect a lifetime achievement award at a film festival. Swiss police took Polanski into custody at the request of authorities in Los Angeles, who want the Oscar-winning director back in their hands 31 years after he fled the United States before he was to be sentenced for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Polanski and his family remained cloistered inside the chalet after his arrival Friday, shades and curtains drawn over the many windows. Two security guards prowled the fenced-in grounds, shooing away journalists and paparazzi who strayed too close from positions staked out on an adjacent, snow-padded hill.

“Mr. Polanski and his wife just asked us to say they are not coming out,” one of the guards told reporters. “There is no point in waiting, so you can all leave.”

This tony enclave (population 2,500) has long been favored by the rich and famous as a quiet retreat, a haven from the glare of footlights and flashing cameras. Locals pride themselves on a studied nonchalance toward the many celebrities who make this their playground, and they want that atmosphere to prevail.

“Discreet” is everybody’s favorite adjective here, and residents see that quality as key to the town’s appeal to celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Roger Moore.

Roger Niklasiewicz, a jewelry maker who has lived in Gstaad for 16 years, said other places cater to those who want to be noticed. “Gstaad is very discreet. It doesn’t compare with St. Moritz, which is a showoff,” he said.

Like Polanski, Niklasiewicz is of Polish descent. He said he was introduced to Polanski by a mutual friend and became friendly with him, running into the director often during his regular visits to the village.

“It’s such a small town. We always meet here and there,” Niklasiewicz said, adding that he was happy to know Polanski was out of jail and reunited with his family.

Roger Seifritz, head of the local tourism office, said famous people can stroll around Gstaad without bodyguards even during the seasonal rushes when throngs of visitors wind their way up the mountains to vacation in this tucked-away spot.

Celebrities “go shopping, sit down in restaurants without anyone around, and this is why they come back to Gstaad -- to have this freedom to be themselves without having to worry,” Seifritz said. “You could sit in a cafe and have cake and coffee without realizing that someone famous is sitting next to you having a sip of tea or reading a book.”

Polanski, 76, arrived in Gstaad shortly before 1 p.m. Journalists and paparazzi were waiting for him as his two-car police convoy, the windows tinted against prying eyes, swept up the chalet’s driveway and disappeared into the garage.

The filmmaker had to put up $4.5 million in bail and surrender all identification papers to the Swiss police.

He has also been fitted with an electronic anklet so authorities can monitor his movements. If he steps off his property or tries to remove the anklet, police here in the canton of Bern will be instantly alerted.

“He has undertaken not to leave his house or the property at any time. . . . He cannot leave the garden and go to the village,” said Folco Galli, a spokesman for the federal Justice Ministry. “Within his house he is completely free. He can receive visitors, he can work, he can phone without restrictions.”

Polanski’s house arrest will last as long as it takes the Swiss government to decide on an extradition request from the United States. Galli said a decision could come within weeks. Polanski’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The decision to grant house arrest was unusual for Swiss authorities, because Polanski is a foreign national and because of his record of fleeing from justice, which makes him, from a legal perspective, a flight risk.

Peter Cosandey, a former prosecutor in Zurich with extensive experience of extradition cases, said use of the electronic anklet, a relatively new concept in Switzerland, was probably instrumental in winning the court’s leniency.

“The court said that the danger of flight is substantial,” Cosandey said. “But [given] a combination of a substantial bail, plus the electronic monitoring, plus his saying that he would not flee, they said, overall, this should be enough to release him on bail.”

If Polanski violates the conditions of confinement to his chalet, the $4.5 million bail would be forfeited.

The U.S. formally lodged an extradition request at the end of October; Polanski’s attorneys filed their brief at the end of last month. The extradition decision now rests with the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, which, Cosandey said, is obligated to consider the request purely on technical, administrative grounds -- as a matter of whether proper procedures were followed and administrative criteria satisfied, rather than the merits of the case against Polanski.

If everything was done correctly, then the Swiss government has little choice but to grant the request, Cosandey said. Polanski then would have the right to appeal, which means that his stay in Gstaad could last months instead of weeks.

By then, Mayor Aldo Kropf hopes, the interest in the town’s currently most famous (or infamous) resident will have died down, the media horde will have given way to ordinary visitors and residents can get on with being their usual low-key selves.

“This crowd will last only a few weeks, and then everything will go back to normal,” Kropf said confidently. “Our main characteristic is certainly the fact that we do respect the people who come here. We tolerate and live together with them, making them feel welcome without being invasive.”

In a word, he said, it’s all about “being discreet.”

Special correspondent Maria de Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.