The 76th Venice Film Festival is only one day old but has already been dominated by talk of director Roman Polanski, whose new movie An Officer And A Spy debuts in Competition tomorrow. The filmmaker won’t be at the festival or doing general press but he has given a strikingly candid, wide-ranging interview for the film’s press notes.
In the interview, 86 year-old Polanski discusses his motivation for making An Officer And A Spy, his experience in the MeToo and Times Up era and the enduring trauma of his wife Sharon Tate’s murder.
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Oscar-winning filmmaker Polanski remains a controversial figure due to his arrest in 1977 for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He pled guilty to the lesser offence of unlawful sex with a minor and served 42 days behind bars but has been a fugitive of the U.S. ever since, having fled the country after learning that a judge planned to give him a lengthy sentence. His victim Samantha Geimer has subsequently said she has forgiven the French-Polish helmer and accepted a private apology.
Polanski, who currently resides in France, is interviewed in the notes by polemical French writer Pascal Bruckner, author of the novel Bitter Moon, which was turned into a film by Polanski. Bruckner is clearly an ally, as evidenced by one particularly jarring question in which the writer asks how Polanski will “survive the present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism”. Press notes are highly controlled so the Q and A will have been vetted by the director and/or production.
In the interview, Bruckner starts out by asking Polanski why he wanted to make An Officer And A Spy, about the notorious, anti-semitic 1894 Dreyfus Affair in which a Jewish officer in France was wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“Big stories often make great films, and the Dreyfus Affair is an exceptional story,” Polanski says. “The story of a man unfairly accused is always fascinating, but it is also very much a current issue, given the upsurge in anti-semitism.”
Polanski posits that a Dreyfus Affair could happen again today.
“Another affair is possible, definitely. All the ingredients are there for it to happen: false accusations, lousy court proceedings, corrupt judges, and above all ‘social media’ that convict and condemn without a fair trial or a right of appeal.”
Soon after comes Bruckner’s most remarkable question, “As a Jew who was hunted during the war and a filmmaker persecuted by the Stalinists in Poland, will you survive the present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism which, as well as chasing you all over the world and trying to prevent the screening of your films, among other vexations got you expelled from the Oscars Academy?”
Polanski responds, “Working, making a film like this helps me a lot. In the story, I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself, I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case….My work is not therapy. However, I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”
His “persecution” started with the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, Polanski says.
“The way people see me, my ‘image’, did indeed start to form with Sharon Tate’s death. When it happened, even though I was already going through a terrible time, the press got hold of the tragedy and, unsure of how to deal with it, covered it in the most despicable way, implying, among other things, that I was one of the people responsible for her murder, against a background of satanism. For them, my film Rosemary’s Baby, proved that I was in league with the devil! It lasted several months, until the police finally found the real killers, Charles Manson and his ‘family’. All this still haunts me today. Anything and everything. It is like a snowball, each season adds another layer. Absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.”
“Don’t you want to fight back?,” Bruckner says.
“What for? It’s like tilting at windmills,” concludes Polanski.
The press notes also includes an interview with the Oscar-winning star of An Officer And A Spy, Jean Dujardin (The Artist). He is asked how he approached working with Polanski.
“Polanski is the first master I have ever met.” Dujardin says. “He is a filmmaker who demands from others the same extreme precision he requires from himself. You need to follow him and never drift off, otherwise he’ll be on your back: he sticks his nose in everywhere, into every aspect of the filming process. Roman is a man who studied fine arts: he sets up his shots just like paintings. Every detail needs to be perfect: the drapes in a room, a branch in a forest, and so on. He has this attention to detail in the directing of actors. You can rehearse a scene thirty times before filming it, to ensure sincerity. Roman is a complex and demanding person who won’t let anything deflect him from his path. He has to see the project through to the end. He needs to go out and find the truth. An Officer and a Spy is a fundamental film for him, just like The Pianist. This is not about making a film: he lives his story and takes us with him. I love that. I am there to serve the story.”
Dujardin, fellow cast members and the film’s producers will be on the Lido tomorrow for the premiere and press conference. Polanski is not expected to dial in for the presser.