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September 18: Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski (1933)

Roman Polanski

It was on this date, September 18, 1933, that director Roman Polanski was born Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański in Paris to Polish Jewish parents, neither of whom practiced their religion seriously. The family got caught in Poland as the Nazis overran the country. Polanski's mother, a Roman Catholic, died in the concentration camp, but Roman – at that time known as Roman Liebling – and his Jewish father escaped.

His father sent Roman to technical school, but Polanski took up acting instead, and studied directing at the Lodz Film School. He earned some note in Poland as a director, migrated to France and made more films, before crossing the channel to make Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966), which won respectively Silver and Golden Bear awards at the Berlin Film Festivals.

In Hollywood, Polanski made the psychological thriller Rosemary's Baby in 1968. However, in 1969 his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the infamous Manson gang and the director decided to return to Europe. He returned once again to the US to make the classic 1974 film Chinatown, but a conviction for the statutory rape of a 13-year old model, forced Polanski to escape to Europe to avoid prison. He has not been back to the United States since 1978.

Polanski's films often incorporate religious symbolism and religious themes. Beginning with his 1962 Polish film, Knife in the Water, and continuing through Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Ninth Gate (1999), The Pianist (2002) and The Ghost Writer (2010). The religion portrayed either supports evil or is powerless against it.

In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, the director describes himself as an atheist. He says he intentionally made Rosemary's Baby ambiguous so that it could be interpreted as all taking place in Rosemary's head. In the film, the title character learns that her husband and all her friends are part of a Satanist coven; she is impregnated by the devil and even shares a meal resembling a Christian communion.

Rosemary's Baby was condemned in the US by the Roman Catholic Office For Motion Pictures, which criticized the "perverted use which the film makes of conventional Christian beliefs and its mockery of religious persons and practices."

In a March 2000 New York Post interview about The Ninth Gate, Polanski claims to have no interest in the occult:

I'm totally disinterested, personally, with that sort of thing. ... It does absolutely nothing for me. I'm neither religious nor superstitious. At best I can be counted as an agnostic. Science and technology get me a lot more excited.

In a 2001 Pop Matters interview about the same film, critic Cynthia Fuchs asks Polanski, "The movie brings together exoticism and menace, religious and sexual passions, in Corso's seduction," to which Polanski replies,

That's what the whole movie is about. I can only look at religion with a certain dose of irony, because I'm not a religious person. And of course, sex and religion, they're always connected. Each religion has some sort of hangup about sex.

A survivor of the Warsaw ghetto himself, Polanski makes the story of his 2002 film, The Pianist – about the perseverance of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew – a tribute to human will, talent and intelligence. Szpilman escapes hell, but it is a hell of human design and human cruelty; a hell without God and without a devil. In fact, God is irrelevant to Szpilman's salvation.

For his efforts, Polanski's direction of The Pianist won three Academy Awards in 2002, including Best Director. In addition, Polanski won Cannes's "Palme d'Or," the French "César," and the Polish "Eagle." His 2010 The Ghost Writer, loosely based on the life of Tony Blair after his term as Prime Minister of England, won Polanski six film awards in Europe, including Best Director. Atheist or agnostic, Roman Polanski's films explore the psychological underpinnings of evil – and a very skeptical view of the utility of religion against it.

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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