Polanski, seen from his own lens

Should great artists be treated differently from ordinary mortals? Does a musician, painter, writer or filmmaker who creates soul-stirring and sublime works deserve a free pass, special dispensation, a get-out-of-jail card, so to speak?

I raise these questions in regard to Roman Polanski, the French-Polish director who soon may be extradited back to Los Angeles to face the consequences of a crime he committed in 1977, then fled from -- but not in connection to his sordid legal situation.

Rather, these are questions that Polanski addresses himself in “The Pianist,"(2002_film) his 2002 film about the brilliant Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman. Through a combination of his own intelligence and animal guile, and other people’s (mainly) good intentions, Szpilman somehow was able to survive the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II(1939) while millions around him perished.

“The Pianist” is a haunting drama that won Polanski the Oscar for best director. It may be the most emphatic and comprehensive statement on the human condition from a director whose career has generated “Knife in the Water” (1962), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Chinatown” (1974) and “The Tenant” (1976).


So what is “The Pianist” saying about moral behavior, and the role of the artist in society? And what, if anything, can be inferred from it about the moral vision of the complex, controversial man who directed it?

Polanski’s vision of the ethical laws governing the universe is anything but reassuring. In his movies, justice and logic ultimately have little to do with an individual’s fate. Crime and punishment are dished out more or less arbitrarily. Survival is fluky, freakish and often paid for with drastic moral compromises.

His sensibility unmistakably stamps Polanski as a postwar European auteur, heir to the existential musings of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, as he has acknowledged. His absurdist view of existence, combined with his meticulous sense of craft, renders his movies cold to the touch, not warm and fuzzy, in the preferred Hollywood manner.

The key elements of Polanski’s personal narrative hardly need repeating. But in sum they remain shocking and disturbing: his youthful escape from the Krakow ghetto while his parents were sent to Nazi extermination camps (only his father survived); the sadistic murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson gang in 1969; and his conviction for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, the case for which he is still a wanted man in Los Angeles.


That’s a lifeline that, in the abstract, sounds as surreal as almost anything Polanski has cooked up in his films. If an agent pitched it to a roomful of studio executives, they might dismiss it as too improbable to play in Peoria.

Yet Polanski’s life story has long been catnip to movie critics and armchair Freudians looking for clues to interpreting his films. It practically could be a parlor game: Can you spot the director’s true self in his movies? At times, Polanski has appeared to encourage such speculation by appearing in many of his films. He played the title character in “The Tenant,” an isolated Polish exile living in Paris who arouses the irrational suspicions, fears and eventually the pathological loathing of his neighbors. In “Chinatown” he cast himself as a vicious “midget” (Polanski is short) who slices open the nose of private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) right when he’s stumbling on the truth behind a very dark secret.

“Granted that it’s too easy and a cliche to connect your work with your life in such a direct manner,” the Australian critic Clive James demurs to Polanski in the opening frames of “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” the probing documentary by director Marina Zenovich that first aired on HBO last year. But if, as James suggests, it would be flippant to draw glib clinical conclusions about Polanski (or any auteur) based on the content of his or her movies, it would be obtuse not to take note of some of the ghastly parallels between the facts of Polanski’s life and the shadow worlds of his films.

Pauline Kael, longtime film critic of the New Yorker, perceived shades of the Manson Family’s slayings in the gruesomely staged slaughter of Lady Macduff and her entourage in Polanski’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (1971). In its online biography of the director, the New York Times asserts that “the tawdry details of Mr. Polanski’s behavior” in the sex-crime case, some of which were revealed in grand jury testimony made public only a few years ago, “were matched by accounts of official wrongdoing that occasionally seemed to mirror the tone” of the civic dirty dealings of the 1930s portrayed in “Chinatown.”


So where does “The Pianist” fit in Polanski’s self-referential spectrum? Steven Spielberg reportedly offered Polanski the opportunity to direct “Schindler’s List.” But Polanski opted for “The Pianist” after purchasing the rights to Szpilman’s memoir, praising the book as “very dry, without sentimentalism or embellishments.”

Indeed, the film for much of its running time maintains an emotionally neutral, morally nonjudgmental tone that is all the more effective in contrast to the chilling events it depicts.

In the movie, several people intervene to spare the life of the desperate musician played by Adrien Brody, including Polish Underground activists, fellow Jews and, in the story’s most bizarre twist, a Nazi officer. Several of those who help to save Szpilman from certain death sacrifice their own lives in the process.

“The Pianist” suggests that both civilization and human identity are fragile constructions at best, as Brody’s character is transformed from a highly cultured cosmopolitan into a haggard, hunted man living by his wits. After he’s miraculously spared from being herded onto the Nazis’ concentration camp-bound trains, he takes part in helping to arm the resistance fighters who stage the Warsaw uprising. Later, he expresses his guilt for not having gone down fighting alongside them.


The more socially palatable and therefore conventional message of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and his other World War II-era opus, “Saving Private Ryan,” is that any given human life is neither more nor less valuable than any other. All lives and deaths are, or should be, invested with dignity and love. But in the far bleaker worldview of “The Pianist,” some lives, justifiably or not, prevail over others, and death and suffering are as often grotesque, random and meaningless as they are noble, purposeful or humanizing.

Although it depicts numerous acts of courage, mercy and decency, “The Pianist” is far more concerned with the paradoxes and contradictions of human behavior. It’s a movie in which even Nazis are shown as both cultured and thuggish, civilized and barbaric. So are their victims, albeit to a far different degree. What matters, in the end, is who stays alive, who’s still around when the chaos subsides and order (or at least the illusion of order) is temporarily restored.

It’s not hard to imagine that Polanski saw aspects of himself in Szpilman. "[Polanski] has a strong vision of death and sadness inside of him, but since he has such energy, such working power, such desire to do extraordinary things, he prevails.” So remarks Pierre-Andre Boutang, identified as “Polanski’s friend” in Zenovich’s documentary, in an interview meant to contextualize the director’s decision to flee the United States. He could be describing the character in “The Pianist.”

The crucial difference, of course, is that Szpilman was a victim of the abominable, criminal actions of others. Polanski, in the case for which he remains in the docket of world opinion, was the perpetrator. The pianist’s actions in saving himself were defensible; those of Polanski, in the opinion of many, were utterly reprehensible.


Yet however we judge Polanski as a human being, it’s worth noting that in “The Pianist” he doesn’t make the claim that artists deserve special consideration. In the director’s universe, no one merits preferential treatment any more than they necessarily deserve the injustices that befall them. If anything, his movies simply argue that judging any individual’s life and actions should be done with caution, in a world where terrible things both within and beyond our control can happen to virtually anyone at any time, and often do.