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ROMAN POLANSKI: A FILM MEMOIR (review)

Review by Seth Levi

Roman Polanski is going to be remembered for three things: Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and rape.

Despite being called “a film memoir,” Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is less about Polanski’s film career and more his decades long legal problems.

Filmed in 2010 while Polanski was under house arrest in Switzerland while the Swiss government considered the United States’ extradition request, the documentary is transparent self-serving piece of publicity to tell the famed director’s side of the rape story.

Polanksi is primarily a one-on-one interview conducted by longtime friend and producer Andrew Braunsberg, and directed by Laurent Bouzereau who is best known for making “behind the scenes” documentaries included as special features on LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray releases of movies.

Except for a postscript at the end, Bouzereau has the two men seated at a table with coffee cups to convey the idea that this is an intimate conversation between two friends.

Far and away the most compelling part of the documentary is Polanski Shoah-esque recounting of living in the Kraków Ghetto. Despite having been six years old at the start of the Nazi’s occupation of Poland, Polankski vividly describes what life was like for him and his family.

He not only remembers what happened, but the emotions he felt at the time, such as realizing just how serious the situation was when the Nazis began building walls around the Ghetto — a clear indication that they were not going to get out of it.

Polanski is animated and engaging storyteller who utilizes his whole body to help convey ideas and emotions.

At one point he gets up from the table to contort his body and falls to the ground in order to demonstration how exactly a Nazi soldier beat an old woman. In another instance when discusses having to make paper bags, he reaches for a piece of paper and demonstrates how its done — even though it was something he had to do 70 years ago, clearly the mechanics of it have been burned into his memory.

There’s clearly a story there that Braunsberg failed to pry out of Polanski.

Throughout this portion of the documentary Bouzereau edits in brief clips from Polanski’s films — most notably The Pianist — to show how many of these moments in the Ghetto stuck with Polanski long after the end of World War II, and eventually found their way into his movies.

Polanksi is such a good storyteller that it’s a shame all 90 minutes aren’t devoted to it. And remembering what happened in the Holocaust is certainly more important than his spin on why he’s under house arrest.

The next third of the move covers about a thirty year period in his life, beginning when he was a child actor, to studying directing because he couldn’t get into acting school due to the politics of Communist controlled Poland, to making it as a director, and finally ending with Shannon Tate’s murder.

Despite the 8-year gap between Tate’s murder and the Samantha Geimer rape — 1969 and 1977, respectively — Bouzereau obfuscates everything that happened in between so to suggest there being a direct link with Polanski’s shattered mental state after the murder and his criminal actions. For example, about a minute is devoted to Chinatown (1974) despite it being Polanski’s greatest film.

And remember, this documentary is subtitled “a film memoir.”

Braunsberg begins the final thirty minutes of the film describing to Polanski what was going on in his life right before the rape — working on an adaption of The First Deadly Sin.

And in Braunsberg’s words, suddenly “you had this experience with Samantha.”

Let’s stop here for a moment. It’s incredibly offensive describe what happened as an “experience” — Braunsberg cannot bring himself to say rape.

And then he refers to Geimer by her first name as if this was a misunderstanding between friends.

Braunsberg names the charges, says that Polanski plead guilty, and then the two quickly launch into their story of how Polanski was railroaded by the judge, that he wouldn’t accept the plea deal Polanski and the prosecution agreed to, that he told Polanski that he would lock him in prison indefinitely unless he self-deported.

Let’s just assume for the moment that that’s all true.

Braunsberg asks Polanski no questions about the rape. There’s no mention that Geimer was 13 and that drugs were involved. Throughout their discussion of the judge’s wrongdoing and Polanski leaving the country, there is no expression of contrition or self-reflection from Polanski.

The documentary concludes with Polanski discussing how he met his current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and since then his life has become fulfilling for him.

There’s a short postscript to the documentary.

Several months after the Swiss government decided not to extradite Polanski, he and Braunsberg sat down for an additional interview. Now, Polanski does say what he did to Geimer was wrong, and apologies for everything she’s been through.

I cannot help but think that after watching the footage from the previous interview, Braunsberg, Polanski and Bouzereau all realized that this was crucial declaration was missing. Bouzereau then includes Geimer’s interview with Larry King where she says she doesn’t want to see Polanski prosecuted anymore, and that she places more blame on the judge and media.

I’ve personally never followed the details of the rape and subsequent adjudication too closely, but if Polanski wanted to get me on his side, he shouldn’t have had his friend being the one asking him question.

He would have come across as more sincere and honest had a third-party had conducted the interview. And if Polanski was really the victim of judicial misconduct, then that would have come out with a neutrally interviewer. But he and Braunsberg’s blasé characterization of what happened with Giemer causes me to have less sympathy for Polanski — he comes off as an entitled celebrity he wants to paint himself as a victim despite having sex with a 13 year-old.

There’s no doubt Polanski is a great filmmaker with a compelling childhood.

The first 30 minutes of Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir are worth watching for his Holocaust story. The rest of the film can be skipped. His actually film career is rushed through (as is his life post WW2), and no matter where you stand on the rape, there’s nothing really said that will move you in any direction.

Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is available now for download and streaming on: iTunes, Amazon, XBox, Sony, Google / Youtube.

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