Reprieve for film's fugitive: Roman Polanski

Hushed inquiries were made in the corridors of power in London some years ago about the kind of reception Roman Polanski could expect if he were to turn up on British soil.

According to friends of the exiled film director, the feedback was mainly good. There would be no arrest but there would be no assurances about the future either. If an extradition request arrived from the United States, Polanski could find himself being sent to face trial again in California. The director decided not to go.

This month, there is a fresh suggestion that the original charges against Polanski, accused 31 years ago of the rape of a 13-year-old girl, may finally be dropped. Lawyers for the 75-year-old have argued in Los Angeles that a clear pattern of misconduct in the original prosecution had emerged.

The legal move follows a series of key disclosures about the trial made in Marina Zenovich's acclaimed documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. It crucially shows Roger Gunson, the assistant district attorney in charge of the case, admitting that, in the same position as Polanski, he would probably have fled the country too. Facing the prospect of a three-year prison sentence, the director flew to France.

Since then, he has visited only countries which have no full extradition treaty with the US.

At the heart of the charges against him is a terrible alleged crime but it is, in fact, just the third of three terrible crimes to have shadowed his life. Twice before, once as a Jewish boy in Poland and then as a brilliant young talent in Hollywood, Polanski was the victim of the kind of brutality that defies comprehension.

After first surviving the loss of his mother in the Holocaust, he travelled to America, where his young pregnant bride, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family.

This slaughter, amid the excesses of Hollywood and the sordid rape charges that followed, are central to the myth of this great director, a man who has created a series of acknowledged cinematic classics, films such as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess and The Pianist.

Polanski has had to accommodate near-demonic associations and has even written of his renown as "an evil, profligate dwarf". Yet for the last 20 years, he has lived happily in Paris, the city where he was born to Polish parents in 1933.

He shares his home with his third wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, star of his thriller Frantic, and their two children, Morgane, 12, and Elvis, 7. His friend, playwright Ronald Harwood, who wrote the screenplays for The Pianist and the recent Oliver Twist, believes Polanski is "a different man" to the one who stood in the dock.

"He does not go on about the case. He is a father of two now," said Harwood. The victim, Samantha Gailey, is a different woman too. These days, she is Mrs Geimer, a mother of three living in Hawaii, and has said several times that, for her, the rape case is already closed.

Harwood remembers sitting in Los Angeles one evening with Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening, when they heard Geimer being conciliatory in a television interview. Beatty decided to call Polanski in France to let him know.

"It was a brief call and when Warren put the phone down, he told us all Roman had said was, 'Okay. I have to take the kids to school now'."

Polanski has confided to the press that these trips to the school gates are "the top moment of the day ... It's the best. It's great to see them walking away into this school. It's a moving moment."

In 2004, Harwood was beside Polanski, supporting him, in a small Paris room when his libel case against Vanity Fair made legal history. Unable to attend the High Court in London, he testified via a video link. "We had lawyers with us and when we came into the room, we had to bow to the TV screen. It was very strange."

Polanski won 50,000 ($131,000) compensation from the magazine for a claim made in 2002 that he had made sexual advances to a model in a Manhattan restaurant while returning from Europe for Tate's funeral. "Can you imagine one of my children reading that I did what they alleged I did?" Polanski asked afterwards.

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When Polanski was 3, his family moved to Krakow from Paris. Confined to the ghetto after the German invasion, as a 9-year-old he managed to escape the Nazi "liquidation" of March 1943 by running to the home of a family friend. He returned to see his parents being led away. His mother was killed in Auschwitz.

"We never talked about what happened to us," his boyhood friend, photographer Ryszard Horowitz, has said. Living in the countryside during the war, Polanski later returned to Krakow and his surviving relatives.

"I think he decided to create a normal life for himself," Horowitz has suggested. "You have to be incredibly strong to go through what he went through and not suffer. He's built a very strong shield to protect himself from the outside world."

Philip French, film critic of the Observer, suspects that Polanski learnt the art of mocking authority as he grew up under communism. His early film school project, Two Men and a Wardrobe, has "two hopeful men emerge from the sea with a wardrobe, find nowhere to rest in an uncharitable world and return whence they came".

Recognition as a talented director came with Knife in the Water in 1962. In London in the Swinging 60s, Polanski partied with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bailey. In his spare time, he made two impressive films, the psychological chiller Repulsion, with Catherine Deneuve, and the black comedy Cul-de-sac, for a joint budget of less than 10,000.

"The British were very quick to take me up," Polanski has said. "It was wonderful to find that people knew me and my work, and I made many friends ... it was a very creative place to work, extraordinary for me. I recall those years as the best of my life."

Then in 1969 came the horrific murder of Tate. Grieving in Europe, the young widower's artistic response was to make a bloody screen version of Macbeth, co-scripted by the Observer's theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan.

The rape charge came once the film-maker was back in Hollywood and had been commissioned by Vogues Hommes to take pictures of adolescent girls. Thirteen-year-old Gailey was hired by the 44-year-old for the photographic shoot and they ended up at the Mulholland Drive house of Jack Nicholson, who was away. Drinking champagne and taking a prescription sedative, they undressed and had sex.

In his 1984 autobiography, Roman, the director insists the underage sex was consensual, saying "she wasn't unresponsive", but the victim's description has always suggested otherwise: "It was very scary and, looking back, very creepy," she has said.

In 1977, after jumping bail, Polanski made his enduring version of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a story of the sexual betrayal of a young girl. Once again, the film-maker appeared to be responding to personal trauma, although such biographical analysis infuriates him. He told one friend: "Yes, I have known violence and there is violence in some of my films, but the two are not connected. My art is fiction."

Philip French holds that Polanski's movies are about "the corruption of innocence and the exposure of complacency". For French, he has a "readiness to confront extreme experience and acknowledge the worst that man can inflict on man" that Harwood also recognises as an "ultimately bleak" sensibility.

Making The Pianist, Harwood and Polanski were together for five weeks with the screenplay, going through it line by line and breaking only briefly for lunch. "It was wonderfully detailed work. He speaks five or six languages and I have always said that one of them is film," Harwood said.

Polanski spent much of this year seeking locations in Europe to double as London and Martha's Vineyard for his next screen project, an adaptation of the Robert Harris political thriller, Ghost. The book must appeal to him because, as Harwood recalls Polanski explaining, he has to be pretty excited to take something on. "He once said to me, 'If I get sent something, I have to get an erection and then I know I can film it'."

Whether the Los Angeles district attorney drops the rape charge next month or not, America has already made a gesture that may mean more. In 2003, Polanski received his first Oscar, as best director, for The Pianist. His retelling of the 1945 Holocaust memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish composer who escaped the Warsaw ghetto, was also named best adapted screenplay.

Polanski made The Pianist, he has said, because "it is a period now when the last witnesses begin to disappear". Unforgiven, fugitive, the film-maker is still restricted, but his challenging art has travelled across borders, through the diaspora, to be accepted.

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