Victim or Perpetrator? The Tragic Case of Roman Polanski

Film director Roman Polanski is fighting to avoid extradition from Switzerland to the US, a country he fled over 30 years ago to escape serving time for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. The case raises difficult questions about the US legal system, the current cult of celebrity and the excesses of the 1970s.

By SPIEGEL Staff


The office on one of the top floors of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center has a view of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Freeway, as well as Pasadena and Glendale a few miles to the north. The Hall of Justice, where Charles Manson was put on trial almost 40 years ago, can also be seen. There are family photos and a picture of a small pink duck on the desk.

The office's occupant is an employee of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, who prefers not to be identified by name. She has been extremely busy lately, as journalists from around the world contact her office, wanting to know why the Los Angeles district attorney asked Swiss authorities to arrest director Roman Polanski. They want to know why it took the D.A.'s office 31 years to push for Polanski's arrest, and what the point of it all is today, after so much time has passed.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Past Catches up with Polanski

She answers this question with a question of her own: "Do you know what kinds of cases I've worked on this year?" There was the case of a priest who abused a boy 20 years ago, she says. And then there was the school principal who had abused girls, and the case of another priest who is now serving a 10-year prison term for sexual abuse of a boy. "Can you explain to me why we're applauded for all of that, but are criticized for prosecuting Roman Polanski, who abused a 13-year-old girl?"

It's very difficult to find an answer to her question.

Victim or Perpetrator?

Since Saturday, Sept. 26, the Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski has been in custody in a Swiss prison, fighting his extradition to the United States. Dozens of directors and actors in the film industry, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, Stephen Frears and Monica Bellucci, have signed and published a petition demanding the release of Polanski, who was born in Paris in 1933, raised in Krakow and holds French and Polish citizenship. They see him as a victim of the American justice system and the compliant Swiss authorities. Even the foreign ministers of France and Poland have intervened by appealing to their American counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But would they have an answer to the question posed by the employee of the Los Angeles D.A.'s office?

The truth is that the case is far too complicated to simply sign a petition in a moment of initial outrage or to rashly demand Polanski's release from prison. The legal procedures are confusing enough, but even more confusing is the bizarre and tragic life of a Holocaust survivor whose heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by supporters of cult leader Charles Manson, a man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead.

The case revolves around many questions that do not lend themselves to quick answers, questions about the freedom of art and its limits, about the loss of perspective in the days of the sexual revolution and the drug culture, and about society's fascination with its stars, who are idolized and demonized at the same time. The case is about very important issues, issues of morality and law, atonement and justice and, most of all, about exactly how guilty Polanski is and whether his actions can even be excused.

Era of Excess

The case -- the People vs. Roman Polanski -- is filed under case No. A-334,139 at the Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles. The file, which was created in March 1977 and has now grown to 10,000 pages, represents one of the oldest unresolved cases at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Los Angeles was a wild place at the time. A few young directors and actors had stirred up a revolution in Hollywood. For the first time, it was not just producers and accountants who were determining which films were to be made. Hollywood's new stars were people like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty, and the films the studios produced told stories of male prostitutes, brutal cops and psychopathic taxi drivers. Hollywood was arguably never as good as it was in that era.

But it was also a time of unbridled rebellion. In an interview with Playboy, Nicholson described how he would dust cocaine on his penis before having sex, while Beatty told a TV interviewer about his bad habits and his penchant for excess. They stylized Hollywood as a place where morality was suspended, posing with the most beautiful women and living in a world of hubris and megalomania.

Shadowy Realm

Polanski was considered one of the most dazzling figures of the new Hollywood. His films seemed to emerge from some shadowy realm. In "Rosemary's Baby," he had Mia Farrow tied to a bed and raped by the devil. In "Chinatown," a film about corruption in Los Angeles, Polanski played a gangster who slits open Nicholson's nose. In the film, evil prevails in the end, and when Polanski was later asked what would have happened to the gangster he played, he said: "He would probably be in Mexico, screwing virgins."

There were no limits. The sexual revolution had changed everything. Playboy featured pictures of an 11-year-old girl, 12-year-old Brooke Shields played a whore in Louis Malle's film "Pretty Baby," and the soft-focus films of David Hamilton, in which he portrayed young girls as nymphs, reached a mainstream audience. Somehow it all seemed relatively normal at the time.

Polanski had many talents. When he photographed the actress Nastassja Kinski for the French edition of Vogue in 1976, she was only 15. He was rumored to have had an affair with her during the shoots. No one, least of all Polanski, found this unusual.

Polanski received a new commission for Vogue Hommes to photograph young girls from around the world. One of the models was 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, from Woodland Hills, a Los Angeles suburb. Polanski went to see the girl's mother, who gave her consent for the photo shoots, thrilled that the great Roman Polanski was going to photograph her daughter for Vogue. She even had no objection to the director's request that she not accompany her daughter. There were two sessions, and on both occasions Polanski picked up the girl from her home.

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