It was on April 16 1997, when the French artist Roland Topor died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 59 years old, sadly far too young for the world to lose such a gifted artist, one who created so many memorable works.
Today, there are still exhibits from Roland’s artwork in his native France, like Exposition : Topor s’illustre, and exhibits in other parts of Europe as well. Roland’s work is not as well known in the United States, except perhaps among fans of horror and science fiction, who still fondly enjoy his 1964 novel “Le Locataire Chimerique” (which was published in the U.S. and U.K. in 1966 as “The Tenant,” and adapted into a 1976 movie by director Roman Polanski) and his script and artwork for the animated 1973 sci fi film “Fantastic Planet.” Those are his two most enduring artistic legacies, although his work also includes the horrific pitch black satirical novel “Joko’s Anniversary” and his hilarious performance as Renfield in Werner Herzog’s 1979 movie “Nosferatu The Vampire.”
And there are some happy signs that Roland’s work will continue to find new audiences, including here in the States.
Born in 1938 in Paris to the Polish-Jewish artist and refugee Abram Topor, Roland nearly lost his life early on after the Nazi invasion and takeover of France in May 1940 and the subsequent rounding up of French Jews for the concentration camps. (Of the 340,000 Jews living in France in 1940, more than 75,000 were deported to death camps, where 72,500 died.) A neighbor denounced the Topor family to Nazi authorities. Abram was forced into hiding and the baby Roland and his sister had to be smuggled out of the city until the war was over.
This devastating start to life clearly impacted Roland’s work, which was dark, cynical and exceptionally downbeat. He frequently explored themes of social exile and alienation, of how an oppressive and conformist society hates the individual and responds in violent fashion against them. He was not a strong believer in traditional, Hollywood-style happy endings.
But … and this is a biggie … he also developed a very rich sense of humor, as did other Jewish artists like Philip Roth and Mel Brooks, for example, who parodied the Holocaust in his dark comedy “The Producers.” Roland’s humor was often cruel and loutish — and hilarious. Life was often a painful endurance test, he seemed to be saying, and a great way to survive it was to laugh at it.
Roland studied at the Beaux-arts de Paris, and his first drawings were published in 1958 in Bizarre, a Dada/Surrealist style magazine. (Roland would also contribute artwork to the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo — site of the devastating terrorist attack on Jan. 7, 2015 when two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of the Paris newspaper and shot and killed 12 people.)
Roland would go on to write novels, screenplays, stage plays, and television shows. He held exhibits across the globe, acted in numerous movies, and in the early 1960s formed the surrealist stage group Panic Movement, a collective with writer Fernando Arrabal and film director Alejandro Jodorowsky, inspired by and named after the god Pan, and influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Roland loved surrealism applied in both horror and humor (very prominent in “The Tenant,” “Joko’s Anniversary” and “Fantastic Planet”), and he also had a passion for bad taste and potty humor. What more could artistic rebels ask for?
He was sometimes a political target later in life as well. In the 1990s, the nationalist right-wing (and viciously anti-Semitic) Polish newspaper Glos (Voice) published a drawing showing the bloody corpse of Roland, who “has been killed by a Polish axe” for apparently showing a lack of respect for Poland.
Today, several of his works happily continue to find new life, including:
Roland’s 1964 novel, about the shy, polite young man named Trelkovsky, who rents an apartment vacated because the previous renter, a young woman, threw herself out the window, was re-released in October 2006 in a handsome new edition by Millipede Press, and that version has since become a collector’s item. Polanski’s movie (in which the director played the central character of Trelkovsky) has gone on to become a classic of the horror genre and, in the view of some critics, Polanski’s best film. “The Tenant” has also found new life as a stage production, including an interactive 2011 version by the New York-based theater company Woodshed Collective, and last year Iranian director Setareh Aminian staged his own adaptation of “The Tenant” in Tehran.
In June 2016, Criterion Collection released a new version of “Fantastic Planet,” complete with an hour-long profile of Roland that aired on French TV in 1974 and a brief 1973 TV interview.
No Ordinary Fairy
In February, Cadabra Records released a new LP, “No Ordinary Fairy,” featuring recordings of two of Roland’s short stories — “No Ordinary Fairy” and “Laying The Queen” — read by actor Laurence R. Harvey, with liner notes by Heidi Lovejoy.
And, of course, his artwork still gets plenty of exhibits in Europe.
Now how about adding to that list, such as:
* Marquis, the 1989 French television movie that Roland co-scripted, about the Marquis de Sade and his talking penis. Criterion did a great job on “Fantastic Planet,” so how about a “Marquis” re-release as well? And for that matter, how about a Criterion release of “The Tenant”? Any thoughts, Criterion?
* Joko’s Anniversary, which was first published in 1969. How about a new version, perhaps along with an English adaptation of the stage version of the book that Roland wrote.
* A lot more of his many French-language novels that have never been translated into English.
So take a moment today, on the sad anniversary of Roland’s far too early passing, to check out one of his works. Rent “The Tenant” or “Fantastic Planet” on DVD. They’re two great works for a Sunday afternoon viewing.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.