Polanski on Polanski The Director Discusses His Life Tragedies

Roman Polanski turned 80 in August, and his new film "Venus in Fur" will be released this month. He discusses his childhood in the Krakow ghetto, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and his abuse of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. "We all just tried to forget about it," he says.


Interview By and

There's an Eames chair in Roman Polanski's Paris office near the Champs Elysées. The seat back is broken, but Polanski is attached to the old armchair. He bought it together with Sharon Tate, his second wife, who was murdered in 1969. Tate's slaying is just one of the great calamities in Polanski's life. The first happened during his childhood in the Krakow ghetto, when both of his parents, who were Polish Jews, were sent to a concentration camp. His father survived, but his mother died in Auschwitz.

As a young man, Polanski had difficulty finding his bearings. The third calamity occurred eight years after Tate was killed by followers of the Satanist Charles Manson, when Polanski sexually abused 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in Los Angeles. He was tried in the United States and spent 42 days in prison. But after he had completed his sentence, the judge withdrew from the deal that had been reached by the district attorney and lawyers for Polanski and Geimer, which prompted the director to flee to Europe. He was arrested again in Zürich in 2009. In an interview with SPIEGEL in September, Geimer made it clear that she had forgiven Polanski long ago.

Today Polanski, born in Paris in 1933 and raised in Poland, is Europe's most famous film director, known for classics like "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974). In 2003 he received the Oscar for best director for "The Pianist". He keeps the statuette on a shelf opposite the broken Eames chair. Polanski turned 80 in August. His new film, "Venus in Fur," opens in German theaters on Nov. 21. It is the film adaptation of a play, which in turn is based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, on whose name the term "masochism" is based. Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's current wife, plays the lead.

A large-format painting by an English pop artists hangs on the wall above Polanski's desk. It depicts the silhouette of a nude woman. Upon closer inspection, the image turns out to be made up of individual puzzle pieces.

SPIEGEL recently sat down with Roman Polanski for a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the release of his new film.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Polanski, your wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, is pretty sexy and seductive in your new film.

Polanski: I'm proud of that.

SPIEGEL: As a director, is it possible to be unbiased when you're married to the female lead?

Polanski: Well, we've been together for quite a while -- 25 years. And we've also made a few films together already. When you work with someone with whom you're also in a relationship, you have to be stricter and tougher with that person. Unfortunately, I can't do my wife any special favors during a film shoot.

SPIEGEL: The film depicts a duel of sorts between an actress and a director. Is that a situation with which you're familiar?

Polanski: The film doesn't delve into our intimate relationship. It's more of a satire. It's ironic and sarcastic. To be honest, we laughed a lot during filming.

SPIEGEL: In "Venus in Fur," the actress says to the director: "You are the director. It's your job to torture actors." Is that partly the voice of director Polanski speaking?

Polanski: I've certainly tortured actors in time -- not intentionally, of course. But sometimes actors have trouble accepting their role, especially men. Men don't really like to follow instructions. There's no problem with directing women.

SPIEGEL: With men, everyone wants to be the leader.

Polanski: I see that you understand what I'm saying. That's why I've always gotten along well with women. It was already the case with my second film, "Repulsion," starring Catherine Deneuve. With her, it was like a tango. The same was true of Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby." But then I encountered Faye Dunaway when I filmed "Chinatown." She was very difficult. I nearly came to a halt.

SPIEGEL: Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra when you were filming "Rosemary's Baby" with her. Sinatra didn't like the fact that his wife was in a film that you were directing, and he kept showing up on the set.

Polanski: Until the day he sent his attorney to the set to serve Mia with divorce papers. Mia was devastated. I think she really loved him. She was crying when she called me over and said: "He just sent his attorney." I didn't think it was a very elegant way to end a relationship.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you get along better with actresses because there is often a sort of sexual tension between a director and an actress?

Polanski: It's possible.

SPIEGEL: You were also together with Nastassja Kinski, a teenager at the time, when you filmed "Tess" with her in 1979.

Polanski: Tell me: Are my women the only thing that interests you for your article?

SPIEGEL: You're the one who has just made a film about the relationship between a director and an actress, and about sex and power. Isn't it a justified assumption that all of this would also have something to do with you and your life?

Polanski: Don't try to find phony reasons to ask me these questions. I'm a big boy.

SPIEGEL: Sorry about that.

Polanski: I had purely professional relationships with most of the actresses, practically all of them, in fact -- with the exception of Emmanuelle, Sharon and maybe Nastassja. Nastassja and I were no longer together when I filmed "Tess." No, there have only been two women in my life. I once had ... you probably know that Sharon Tate was my wife. I met her during the filming of "The Fearless Vampire Killers."

SPIEGEL: You fell in love.

Polanski: Right at the beginning, when we were filming in the Dolomites.

SPIEGEL: You write in your autobiography that you took LSD together and listened to music, and that that was how you got together.

Polanski: It was before we started filming. Of course, we didn't take any LSD during filming. Don't forget that LSD was still legal at the time. But Sharon and I were not granted a future together. It didn't last long.

SPIEGEL: In August 1969, members of Charles Manson's group murdered your wife and four of her friends at your house in Los Angeles. Tate was pregnant with your child. You had been in London shortly before that, but you stayed a few days longer, which is why you weren't there on the night it happened.

Polanski: I often used to wonder how I made it through that period.

SPIEGEL: Do you know the answer now?

Polanski: I just don't think about it anymore. I had to have a moment when I stopped thinking about it. When it happened, my friends said to me: You have to get back to work. But it's impossible to work in that situation. You're incapable of working. The only thing that truly brings relief is time. Nothing else.

SPIEGEL: How long did it take you?

Polanski: A long time. Shortly after the murder, I met with a friend, a psychiatrist. He said it would take me at least four years until I could function normally again. Back then, it seemed like a long time to me. But it turned out to be more than four years. I wonder how a psychiatrist can be so wrong.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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elderberry 11/13/2013
1. The tragedies of others.
Roman Polanski drugged Samantha Geimer, the 13 year old girl with acohol and barbiturates,then sodomised her. That person has been traumatised for life. He is a good film director,but as a human being,he should be tried in a court of law for the crime he committed.
Stelvio 11/13/2013
2. Paedophiles
are OK as long as they keep us entertained then? Why is this ghastly creature even given the time of day in your pages?
smiglo 11/18/2013
Please be is correct. These were German concentration camps! Both of his parents, who were Polish Jews, were sent to German concentration camp. Regards.
Jump The Shark 10/05/2014
4. It's all relative and sometimes it's a relative
Justice is seldom done (Ted Kennedy) And we were somehow tied to the crimes we have all committed we would be grateful for that notion. Calm down and move on - Samantha has...
julie_dieske 01/30/2016
5. Focus on his talent not his life as fascinating as it is.
I think the man has been poked and prodded enough on his personal tragedies. What I would want to know is what the process is in making a film, finding the right actors/actresses, the right setting for a film and the time period that it is shot in. What does he consider his greatest work of art, Do the people in his life influence how his characters are going to be? Leave the old man alone.
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