Film director Roman Polanski is now in the Polish city of Krakow, where he grew up, to direct a movie about the Dreyfus Affair, the anti-Semitic scandal that shocked France around the end of the 19th century.
It will be Polanski’s first non-fiction movie since “The Pianist,” and a return to the kind of historical costume dramas that the Polish director has excelled at, including “Macbeth,” “Chinatown,” “Tess,” and “Oliver Twist.”
His latest film will be based on Robert Harris’ novel “An Officer And a Spy,” which recounts the case of Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on a far-off island. It follows the investigation by Georges Picquart, a military officer who believes Dreyfus is guilty — until he discovers evidence that a spy might still be at large in the military, indicating that Dreyfus is probably innocent of all charges.
Throughout his film career, Polanski has made movies in a wide variety of genres, including horror (“Rosemary’s Baby”), detective noir (“Chinatown”), classic British literature (“Tess),” Hitchcock-style mystery (“Frantic”), even comedy and slapstick (“Pirates”). But as diverse as the subject matter has been, there’s no question that virtually every film Polanski has made still falls into one category: the cinema of the Holocaust. That’s true even though among his 20 feature-length films, only one — “The Pianist,” based on the memoirs of Polish composer and Jewish Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman – was actually set during World War II.
In a sense, though, that’s besides the point. Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, the same year that Hitler rose to power in Germany, and his family relocated to Krakow just before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. A Jew, Polanski lived as a small boy in the Krakow ghetto, and his parents and sister were all sent to concentration camps, where his father survived but his mother and sister did not. Polanski himself only survived because he was able to escape from the Krakow ghetto and live with a Catholic peasant family on a farm outside the city until the war was over.
Those early memories of the Krakow ghetto are reflected in virtually every movie that Polanski has made, from his 1962 feature debut “Knife In The Water” — a drama about a couple that takes a young hitchhiker on their sailboat for the weekend — to his most recent feature, “Venus In Furs,” a comedy about a playwright auditioning an actress for his play about the classic Austrian novel “Venus In Furs.”
What connects the movies? In his autobiography “Roman,” published in 1984, Polanski writes that after the Germans invaded Krakow, they set out to isolate the Jews from the rest of the population. He wrote that he and his sister were in their Krakow apartment, and she “took me to the window and pointed. Some men were at work on something right across the street. It looked like a barricade. ‘What are they doing?’ I asked. ‘They’re building a wall.’ Suddenly it dawned on me: they were walling us in.
“What was once a pleasant outlook — a quiet street leading into an open square with trees — had now become a cul-de-sac.”
Polanski would later use that last phrase as the title of his 1966 movie, and while “Cul-De-Sac” had nothing whatsoever to do with the Holocaust — it concerns a wounded gangster who invades a castle off the coast of England, where a wealthy middle aged man and his beautiful young wife live — it still captures the exact sense of entrapment that Polanski described in his autobiography. The couple in “Cul-De-Sac,” George and Teresa, are isolated on that island and in their dark, dank castle, and barely able to defend themselves when the gangster, Richard, invades their home with a gun.
In fact, Polanski repeatedly — and ingeniously — recreates the Krakow ghetto in virtually every film he’s made, by showing vulnerable individuals in a hostile and violent society, desperately looking for a safe haven, only to find that the enclosed space they chose to protect them in makes them even more vulnerable.
Polanski has perfected the art of films about claustrophobic spaces — the vast majority of his movies are set in one specific setting. That include films set on boats (“Knife In The Water,” “Pirates,” “Bitter Moon”), castles (“Cul-De-Sac,” “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “Macbeth,” “Pirates,” “The Ninth Gate”), and urban apartments (“Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant,” “Bitter Moon,” “The Pianist,” “Carnage”). Other isolated locales include an Italian villa (“What?”), a Paris hotel room (“Frantic”), a cottage off the coast of South America (“Death and the Maiden”), a filthy building in the poverty-stricken section of London (“Oliver Twist”) and a theater in Paris (“Venus in Furs”). In each and every case, what is supposed to be the place that provides comfort and protection turns out to be the exact opposite, a virtual prison.
Far from finding security, these isolated locations more often lead the protagonists to a disastrous fate. Take the castles. George is traumatized by his encounter with Richard, and loses Teresa as well. In “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” Professor Abronsius and his assistant Alfred expose the vampires living in the count’s castle — only to help one of them escape and then spread the vampire curse worldwide. Macbeth ends up being beheaded in his castle, while the French castle in “The Ninth Gate” becomes the place where Satan makes a triumphant return.
Cramped spaces end up bringing out the worst in people in Polanski’s films. In “Carnage,” the two New York couples start out quite civil, but after doing some drinking, their ugliest behaviors, prejudices and crudeness come spilling out into the open. In “Venus In Furs,” the talented actress Vanda ends up tapping into the masochistic side of the playwright and director, Thomas, until he’s thrilled when she humiliates and subjugates him.
It’s the apartment movies, though, that best capture Polanski’s sense of how once homey spaces can become literally terrifying — in the same way his Krakow apartment went from family home to prison.
In “Repulsion,” when Carol is left alone in her London apartment, she imagines a rapist breaking into her room at night to violently rape her. Illusion eventually gives way to reality when her landlord shows up looking for the rent, and, seeing how beautiful she looks in a slip, tries to actually rape her.
Rosemary tries to hide from the coven of witches in her apartment, only to find they can easily access it.
Both “The Tenant” and “The Pianist” feature Jewish protagonists who live in small apartments, fearful of making any noise, terrified of upsetting the neighbors. The films are a curious match, considering that one is fiction (based on the novel by French Jewish writer Roland Topor) and the other is taken from Szpilman’s memoirs. In “The Pianist,” Szpilman hides in a vacant apartment in a heavily German section of Warsaw, and he knows any noise might alert the neighbors, who could turn him over to the Nazis.
In “The Tenant,” the lead character, Trelkovsky, is desperately in need of an apartment, and hears of one that’s become vacant because the woman living there threw herself out the window and is now dying in the hospital. It’s a grim way of finding much-needed lodging in a city where apartments are scarce — and that’s exactly what the landlord warns Trelkovsky about. After a noisy housewarming party with some friends, the neighbors complain and the landlord threatens to evict Trelkovsky if it happens again. After that, Trelkovsky is almost intensely quiet — although the neighbors still keep pounding on his walls.
Although “The Tenant” is set in Paris in the 1970s, there are echoes in it to the Holocaust. After the housewarming party, Trelkovsky wears a pair of blue pajamas — that look like what Jewish inmates of camps like Auschwitz were forced to wear. When the neighbors start a petition against a woman with a disabled daughter, hoping to evict her for being too noisy, Trelkovsky refuses to sign it — and he’s warned that the rest of the neighbors won’t forget his insubordination and refusal to conform. Later, they do punish him by calling the police and filing a complaint against Trelkovsky. The police chief not only warns him not to disturb the neighbors anymore — but also nosily inquires about his last name, which is Polish, not French.
In the end, Trelkovsky can no longer take the constant harassment, and decides to follow in the footsteps of the previous tenant and throw himself out the window. Ironically, in “The Pianist,” Szpilman considers doing the exact same thing: throwing himself out the window rather than being taken by the Nazis.
Themes of isolation in cramped spaces, and alienation from the larger, bigoted and malevolent society, runs through all of Polanski’s films. In “The Pianist,” the city of Warsaw is taken over by the genocidal onslaught of the Nazis; in “Chinatown,” the very foundation of Los Angeles is built on greed and corruption; and in “Tess,” Britain fosters a class system that is harsh and cruel to the poor, as well as a sexist Victorian mentality that degrades women and promotes different standards between the sexes. In “Macbeth,” the lust for power leads to a series of violent attacks, while in “The Ghost Writer,” supposedly enlightened political leaders tolerate barbaric acts of torture to gain an upper hand in the war on terrorism. In “Death and the Maiden,” an unnamed South American country struggles to cope after the fall of a dictatorship, as the past victims of torture long for justice against those who abused them. There are scenes of torture in “Macbeth,” “The Tenant,” “Pirates,” “Death and the Maiden” and “The Pianist.”
In both “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Ninth Gate,” Satan gains an upper hand in a world where people willingly succumb to greed, vanity, and their darkest impulses. The world is a cesspool, no matter where Polanski’s camera takes us.
No question, than, that his upcoming film about the Dreyfuss Affair — with the wrongly convicted prisoner trapped on an island — seems certain to continue the cinematic trend that’s made Polanski’s body of work a fascinating glimpse into the absurd and often poisonous world we live in, as well as a remarkable example of the cinema of the Holocaust.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..