Jewish Cinema: “The Ghost Writer”

Roman Polanski's 2010 film "The Ghost Writer," completed while the director was in prison in Switzerland awaiting a ruling from the Swiss court on whether he should he extradited to the U.S., looks at issues of political persecution.,

Roman Polanski’s 2010 film “The Ghost Writer,” completed while the director was in prison in Switzerland awaiting a ruling from the Swiss court on whether he should he extradited to the U.S., looks at issues of political persecution.,


Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, a Polish court rejected a request to extradite film director Roman Polanski to the U.S. for being a fugitive from the law. The judge in Krakow, Dariusz Mazur, called the request from the U.S. “inadmissible.” Polanski, 82, is a citizen of both France, where he was born, and Poland, where as a Jewish child he was raised and survived the Nazi Holocaust, and also where he later launched his film career with highly acclaimed movies like “Two Men and a Wardrobe” and “Knife in the Water.”
U.S. prosecutors can still appeal against the ruling, and also last week, Poland’s newly elected Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, said Polanski should be extradited to the U.S. if the Polish court rules against the filmmaker.
Polanski is in Poland to make a new movie, “D,” about the political persecution and anti-Semitism of the infamous Dreyfuss case in France. Here, Freeline Media looks back at Polanski’s 2010 movie, “The Ghost Writer,” which was also about political persecution — and was edited while Polanski was in a prison in Switzerland, awaiting a similar decision by the Swiss court on whether he should be extradited to the United States.

He’s known only as the ghost – or the ghost writer, to be exact. He’s served as the behind-the-scenes author for some celebrity “autobiographies,” but now his agent has landed him a plumb assignment: completing the memoirs of the recently retired British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, who is holed up on Martha’s Vineyard with his family and staff. The ghost flies out to the Massachusetts island – where he suddenly finds far more calamity than calm and quiet.
As he arrives, the World Court announces it may indict Lang for war crimes and human rights violations tied to the war against Iraq. Since the United States doesn’t recognize the World Court, Lang is safe as long as he stays in the U.S. – though he’s eager to clear his name.
At the same time, the island becomes invaded by the press and by angry anti-war protestors. Lang’s excited publishing house sees dollar signs in controversy, and asks the ghost to crank out the book as quickly as possible. That would be easier if the ghost wasn’t continuously preoccupied by the fact that his predecessor, a close aid and friend to Lang, died after falling off a ferry boat, drowning. Was it accidental? Suicide? Or….
“The Ghost Writer,” the movie by director Roman Polanski, is a compelling political thriller and mystery, and also a deeply paranoid one – no surprise, since the movie is based on author Robert Harris’ very nihilistic novel “The Ghost,” which has few if any reassuring things to say about the government in either the U.S. or the U.K. — or the CIA for that matter. The movie, which also has a great deal of humor, has been compared favorably to Polanski’s 1974 classic “Chinatown,” and with good reason. The film released in March 2010 could also be considered a throwback to the 1970s Polanski: with an outlook that could only be described as deeply cynical.
Polanski began the 1970s in crisis: in August 1969, his wife Sharon Tate, 8-months pregnant, was slaughtered in their Beverly Hills home. By 1970 the Manson Gang was on trial for the killing, but Polanski, who grew up a Jew in Nazi-invaded Poland, had endured months of sleazy press coverage that seemed to hint that the victims of the killings may have brought it on themselves through a wildly extravagant lifestyle. No wonder Polanski’s films throughout this decade were so downbeat and pessimistic.
“Chinatown” is obviously the best known; the Academy Award winning film about political and sexual corruption in 1930s Los Angeles has a famously bleak, almost hopeless ending – is corruption too widespread and powerful to ever be defeated? The fact that a leading female character was killed suggested Polanski’s mourning for Tate hadn’t ending five years later. The same could be said for Polanski’s 1979 movie “Tess,” which maintained Thomas Hardy’s tragic ending, or his adaptation of Shakespeare “Macbeth” – save for a new ending, one not in the Bard’s play, hinting that the bloody cycle of violence and murder was about to start all over again.
Perhaps the most nihilistic and downbeat of all was his 1976 movie “The Tenant,” about a quiet, low key Polish clerk who rents a room in Paris, which became vacant only after the previous tenant threw herself out of the window. The clerk begins to feel the hostility of his fellow tenants, who constantly complain that he’s too noisy. His sense of paranoia, of being monitored constantly, intensifies, and by the movie’s end, even a sense of complete hopelessness would seem far too upbeat a description.
An aging Polanski seemed less pessimistic in recent years – movies like “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist” could almost be said to have “happy” endings. “The Ghost Writer,” on the other hand, harkens back to that 1970s mode: politically charged, but hardy one given to Hollywood-style optimism.
As the ghost plows through Lang’s book, and conducts interviews with the charismatic political leader, he finds odd discrepancies – including how long Lang had been involved in politics, and why he may have gotten into it in the first place. Some old photos from Lang’s college days, found in his predecessor’s room, suggests the first ghost writer may have been on the same trail. It leads the current ghost on a journey that appears to be putting him in no small amount of danger.
What follows is a deliciously suspenseful tale, with plenty of catnip for conspiracy theorists, as the ghost begins to panic and feel like he’s in way over his head.
The movie is boosted by superb performances by Ewan McGregor as the ghost, Pierce Brosnan as Lang, Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife Ruth, and Tom Wilkinson, in a fairly ominous role as a university professor who may have known Lang back in his college days – though he denies they were ever more than casual acquaintances. Or were they?
The cynicism that Polanski and Harris bring to this story is in stark contrast to Hollywood’s usual habit of soothing the audience into believing that all will work out in the end, that goodness will be restored. Viewers can decide for themselves if they prefer that type of entertainment.
But for me, “The Ghost Writer” was a wonderfully stylish thriller – watch the heavy rains continuously pour down on the island retreat, setting a dark and ominous mood throughout – that just gets more fascinating as it goes along.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

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