TORONTO — It’s debatable whether the Holocaust has affected, much less influenced, Roman Polanski, one of the masters of contemporary cinema.
A child of the Holocaust whose Polish Jewish parents were interned in the Krakow ghetto, Polanski has directed only one feature film about this catastrophic event, The Pianist (2002), which won three Academy Awards.
But in his dark, suspenseful films, the Holocaust is implicitly present as a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man.
Impregnated with violence, fear and unpredictability, Polanski’s movies bring into relief the random, heartless cruelty that lurks beneath the thin veneer of our civilization. This is hardly surprising, since he was a frightened, bewildered Jewish boy left to his own devices in Nazi-occupied Poland.
These thoughts come to mind on the eve of a Roman Polanski retrospective, due to take place at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lighhtbox from Dec. 17 to 25.
The movies due to be screened are selections from his distinct phases as a director of distinction.
Knife in the Water (1962), Polanski’s first feature-length movie, won an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film and introduced westerners to a refreshing new talent. After Knife in the Water – a psychological thriller seething with sexual tension and rivalry – Polanski settled in Paris, where he was born in 1933.
Unable to carve out a niche in France, he moved to Britain, where he directed, among others, Repulsion (1965), his first English-language film, and Cul-de-sac (1966), a Gothic horror film he regards as his finest movie.
With Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a spooky film starring John Cassavetes, a young Mia Farrow and the irrepressible Ruth Gordon, he launched the Hollywood phase of his career.
Around this time, he married Sharon Tate, a starlet who was murdered by the Charles Manson gang in 1969. Shattered by her death, Polanski went to Britain.
In 1977, three years after Polanski’s stylish salute to the private eye genre in Chinatown, he pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful sex with a minor in Los Angeles. Fleeing the United States to avoid prison, he settled in France, a fugitive from the law.
After settling in France, he made Tess (1979), a period piece based on a Thomas Hardy novel and dedicated to Tate. But seven years would elapse before he launched his next project, Pirates, a homage to Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling films.
In his movies, Polanski always deals with human frailties. Wartime Poland, where three million Jews perished during the Nazi occupation, gave him a taste of human cruelty and the meaning of racial hatred.
Polanski’s parents, Ryszard and Bula, were thoroughly Polonized and Jews in name only. But to antisemitic Poles, and certainly to some Germans from Nazi Germany, the Polanskis were beyond the pale.
Having returned to Poland from France in 1936, they established themselves in Krakow. With Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, their lives were upended and imperiled.
Pushed into the ghetto, they struggled to survive an unprecedented ordeal. For an impressionable boy like Polanski, who witnessed the horrors and degradations of the sealed ghetto, these were the worst of times.
Deported to German-annexed Austria, Polanski’s father survived the rigours of the Mauthausen concentration camp. His mother, however, was murdered in the inferno of Auschwitz.
Having escaped from the ghetto, Polanski fared better than his parents. And like Jerzy Kosinski’s protagonist in The Painted Bird, he passed through a series of trials and tribulations that tested his mettle to the maximum.
Disguised as a Roman Catholic and using a pseudonym, he went into hiding, helped by sympathetic Poles. He never forgot this horrific, hand-to-mouth chapter in his life.
Reunited with his father after the war, Polanski was a Holocaust survivor in the profoundest sense. Having been exposed to the dark side of human behavior, he was a marked man, psychologically at least. His days, weeks and months as a Jew dangling on the abyss would affect him as a filmmaker.
A graduate of the National Film School in Lodz, he was an actor before becoming a director. Knife in the Water, the first major postwar Polish film whose theme was not about the war, was an international sensation.
Featuring only three actors, an arrogant sportswriter, his much younger wife and a hitchhiker, it unfolds languidly on a sailboat on a placid Polish lake over a span of about 24 hours. Simmering with pent-up emotions, gamesmanship and betrayal, Knife in the Water paints an unflattering picture of people under pressure and duress.
Rosemary’s Baby, which is set in a gloomy Manhattan apartment building that has seen better days, revolves around a young couple befriended by odd next-door neighbours. It is suffused with menace, spooked by witchcraft and drenched in the spectre of Satanism.
And in an implicit reference to the Holocaust, a character exclaims, “God is dead, Satan lives.” Presumably, Polanski was animated by this feeling in 1940s Poland.
Undercurrents of evil also course through Chinatown, which stars Jack Nicholson as a Los Angeles investigator who plunges headlong into the heart of darkness after accepting what on the face of it seems like a normal adultery case.
But only in The Pianist, based on the memoirs of a Polish Jewish musician and arguably his best film, does Polanski deal with the Holocaust per se.
Unfortunately, The Pianist is not in this retrospective. When asked about its exclusion, TIFF spokesperson Katia Houde explained that only films that best complement Polanski’s latest picture, Carnage, were chosen.
Described as a “scathing, shocking, unsettlingly honest and surprisingly hilarious comedy,” Carnage seems unlike anything else in the Polanski pantheon. But if its representation of human beings is unsettling, he will be in his element once again
The films screening at the retrospective are Knife in the Water, Chinatown, Cul-de-Sac, Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby and Ghost Writer. For the complete schedule visit tiff.net.