“When it comes to cinema, evil is simply a form of entertainment to me” – Roman Polanski
French-Polish director Roman Polanski’s experiences as a child Holocaust victim and survivor left an indelible mark on his brilliant and controversial career. Born in Paris in 1933 to parents with Jewish ancestry, the Polanski family moved to Krakow, Poland in 1936 where they endured the consequences of German occupation during World War II. Forced into the Krakow ghetto, Polanski was ostracized, removed from school, and forced to bear witness to the city’s Jews, including his parents, being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. Polanski’s mother died at Auschwitz, but his father survived Mauthausen as a forced laborer. Polanski escaped the ghetto under an assumed name with the aid of Catholic friends of the family, pretending to be Catholic and attending religious schools. Polanski was understandably traumatized by what he experienced during the occupation, including German soldiers using him and other children for target practice, random murders in the streets, and his parents pulled away from him as he watched helplessly. Polanski recalled his earliest memory as a six-year-old: “I had just been visiting my grandmother … when I received a foretaste of things to come. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I simply saw people scattering in all directions. Then I realized why the street had emptied so quickly. Some women were being herded along it by German soldiers. Instead of running away like the rest, I felt compelled to watch.”[i]
As the ghetto liquidated and his family perished one selection at a time, Polanski lived in constant fear of discovery, hiding in ghettos, churches, basements, and farms, all the while pretending to be someone he was not. Living amid pervasive violence and tormented by feelings of survivor’s guilt, alienation and loneliness obviously influenced the artist Polanski would become.[ii] Although reunited with his father, Polanski believed he blamed him for his mother’s death and both father and son were haunted by guilt. Polanski biographer Ewa Mazierska argues Polanski’s horrible childhood in wartime Poland combined with the brutal murder of his second wife, actress Sharon Tate in 1969 at the hands of the Charles Manson cult led the artist to embrace the irrational, the surreal, and a voyeuristic perspective on the capriciousness of evil in a turbulent twentieth century.[iii] Asked about Tate’s murder in a 1984 interview, Polanski explained, “I feel the same sense of Jewish guilt as my father did, and Sharon’s death increases my belief in the absurd.”[iv]
This penchant for portraying characters fearful of the outside world is displayed vividly in Polanski’s trinity of horror films known as the “Apartment Trilogy.” Here Polanski explores the links between gender, mental illness, and identity stability. Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976) are set in the confines of an apartment in which the protagonists believe they are battling a supernatural force intent on robbing their sanity. The psychological horror films leave audiences questioning whether the threat is real or imagined, the product of a haunted space or a diseased mind.[v] The characters in these films display divided and unstable personalities attributable to both a mental breakdown and external forces, although we are never sure which is dominant.[vi]
Repulsion, Polanski’s first English-language film, focuses on Carol Ledoux (Catherine Denevue), a beautiful Belgian immigrant living with her more assimilated sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a small London apartment. Carol is detached from people, painfully shy, stressed by performing ordinary tasks, and utterly disgusted by any hint of sexuality. Living in a strange city and forced to speak a foreign language only heightens her distress. Carol despises Helen’s boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry) who treats the sisters’ apartment as his own. Carol must also contend with the increasingly desperate and clumsy advances of Colin (John Fraser). Left alone in the apartment for several days, Carol descends into madness and despair as she imagines cracks in the walls expanding and shattering; uncooked meat rots on the counter; menacing figures and shadows appear in the mirrors; strange phone calls send her into a panic; and outstretched hands claw at her from the hallways. Carol is unable to function in her job as a manicurist, accidentally injuring a client, and is sent home to further withdraw and hallucinate. Colin arrives at the apartment unannounced to declare his love, refusing to leave Carol alone. Tormented and confused, she beats Colin to death with a candlestick and drags his corpse to the bathtub. Soon after, the aggressive landlord breaks in demanding the rent and propositions Carol. Resisting his repeated advances, Carol cuts his throat with Michael’s straight razor. The film ends with Helen and Michael returning home to find a filthy and catatonic Carol covered in the blood of her victims. Polanski’s choice to direct a horror film about an immigrant unable to distinguish the real from the surreal in a confined space is related to his own experience. Polanski recalled that “[a]udiences were furious because at the start they sympathized with Denevue’s character but then found themselves implicated in what she was doing.” Interestingly, Polanski believed French audiences were angry at being tricked, but thought it was telling that Repulsion “was a triumph in Germany.”[vii]
When interviewers observed Polanski’s characters are “always helpless at the end of your films,” the director replied that showing your hero triumphant “leaves the audience satisfied. And there’s nothing more sterile than the state of satisfaction.”[viii] Perhaps by necessity given his experience as both a victim and perpetrator, Roman Polanski observes the world through an absurdist lens, and from a distance. “I’m interested in what makes you tick,” Charlie Rose said, pressing Polanski to reveal more in an interview. “I know you are,” Polanski replied curtly, “But I’m not.”[ix]
[i] Roman Polanski, Roman by Polanski (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 26.
[ii] Ian Freer, Movie Makers: 50 Iconic Directors from Chaplin to the Coen Brothers (London: Quercus, 2009), 129-31.
[iii] Ewa Mazierska, Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveler (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 14. The issue of Polanski’s arrest for statutory rape in 1978 and his subsequent flight from the U.S. justice system while awaiting sentencing raises questions about how the traumas of the Holocaust and Sharon Tate’s murder affected him. While Mazierska is willing to concede Polanski’s, difficult life is a mitigating factor in his crime, biographer Thomas Kiernan believes Polanski deserves no sympathy and is a fortunate survivor, not a victim.
[iv] Paul Cronin, ed., Roman Polanski Interviews (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2005), 107.
[v] Nick Yarborough, “The Apartment Trilogy by Roman Polanski,” December 19, 2014, http://nickyarborough.com/on-polanskis-apartment-trilogy/ [accessed July 3, 2019].
[vi] Mazierska, 24.
[vii] Cronin, 43.
[viii] Cronin, 44.
[ix] Cronin, 188.