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.
Von 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.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Past Catches up with Polanski

Foto: epa ansa Ruggieri/ picture-alliance/ dpa

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.

Meeting on Mulholland Drive

On March 20, 1977, the day of the second session, Polanski and the girl drove to the house of Jack Nicholson at 12850 Mulholland Drive. They were alone. When they arrived, the girl said that she was thirsty, according to the 39-page statement Gailey later made to the district attorney.

Polanski gave her champagne, and she drank it.

"How much did you drink?" the D.A. asked.

"I don't know," Gailey replied.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Past Catches up with Polanski

Foto: epa ansa Ruggieri/ picture-alliance/ dpa

Polanski went to the bathroom to get a Quaalude, a drug that was popular at the time and that produces a euphoric feeling and acts as an aphrodisiac. Polanski gave her half a pill, but at first she refused to take it.

After he had taken a few shots, Polanski asked the girl to undress and get into the jacuzzi. Samantha felt uncomfortable, and she told Polanski that she wanted to go home. He sent her into a bedroom and told her to wait for him there. Again, she said that she wanted to go home. Polanski sat down on the couch next to her and asked whether she was okay.

"No," she replied.

Then he kissed her. She kept telling him that she didn't want to be kissed, and that he should leave her alone. "But I was kind of afraid of him," she said, according to the statement, "because there was no one else there."

'I Was Afraid of Him'

Polanski kissed her vagina. The girl said no, told him to stop, but he continued his advances and eventually penetrated her. He asked her whether she was taking the pill and when she had last had her period. "I said, 'I don't know. A week or two. I'm not sure,'" Gailey said.

Eventually Polanski had anal sex with her, the girl testified.

"Did you resist at that time?" the district attorney asked.

"A little bit, but not really because --"

"Because what?"

"Because I was afraid of him."

There was a knock on the door. "Roman, are you in there?" a voice asked. It was Angelica Huston, Nicholson's girlfriend at the time. "Yes," Polanski replied, "I just got out of the jacuzzi and I'm getting dressed." He went outside to say a few words to Huston. Then he returned and continued having intercourse with the girl.

When he was finished, he took the girl home and told her not to say anything to her mother, that it was their "secret."

At home, her sister overheard Samantha telling her boyfriend what had happened. The mother called the police that same evening, Samantha was taken to a hospital for an examination, and then they drove to a police station.

Huge Scandal

On March 24, 14 days later, Polanski was charged with six felony counts, including drugging and then raping a minor, sexual abuse of a minor, and having anal and oral sex with children. A huge scandal ensued and a massive media circus developed. Polanski claimed he was innocent. His lawyers began investigating the 13-year-old girl's background, and her mother came under fire.

The family's attorney's tried to quickly bring the case to a close. They wanted to avoid a public trial, so that the girl would not be stigmatized for the rest of her life. The district attorney proposed a plea bargain, a deal in which Polanski would plead guilty to only one of the felony counts, unlawful sex with a minor, while the other five counts would be dropped. Polanski's attorneys quickly agreed to the deal. Polanski himself spent 42 days in a state prison to undergo psychological evaluation. The psychologists favored a suspended sentence, arguing that Polanski was not a danger to society.

That was the plan. But it never materialized, because the judge was no longer interested in honoring the deal. When Polanski boarded a British Airways flight to London one day before the scheduled announcement of the judge's verdict, becoming a fugitive from the America justice system, an absurd case came crashing down, a case that at times was treated as if the crime it involved was nothing but a peccadillo.

'Everyone Wants to Fuck Young Girls!'

Chaos ensued. The efforts by the district attorney's office and the victim's lawyers to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion had failed, while the hopes of Polanski's attorney to extract his client from the case relatively unscathed were dashed. The judge's attempt to not come down too hard on a celebrity defendant, while at the same time resisting public pressure to impose a meaningful punishment, had also come to nothing. To this day, the Polanski case involves a crime without a conviction, a perpetrator without a punishment and a victim without peace.

Polanski went to Paris, where he soon directed a new film, "Tess," starring Nastassja Kinski. But he showed no remorse.

He told British novelist Martin Amis: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!"

In an interview with the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, he was asked whether he regretted having had sex with the young girl.

"I regret everything I had to go through at the time."

But she was 13, the interviewer responded.

"To be precise, she turned 14 three weeks later," Polanski said.

Too Much to Cope With

He published his autobiography, "Roman by Polanski," in 1984. It tells the story of a young boy from Poland whose parents were deported and whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz. It's the story of a child who, at the age of nine, escaped from the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed-wire fence and was hidden by farmers in the countryside, where he was later sexually abused.

He applied to acting school but was rejected for being too short at 1.65 meters (5'5") tall. Instead, he attended film school in the Polish city of Lodz, then went to Paris and later to London. His first feature-length film, "Knife in the Water," was nominated for an Oscar. He quickly became a celebrity in swinging London, where he met the actress Sharon Tate, who was cast in "Dance of the Vampires," his first commercially successful film. Then Polanski moved to Hollywood. In his book, he writes that it was the happiest time of his life.

Polanski was only 36 when his wife and their unborn baby were murdered. That all of this was probably far too much for one person to cope with is no understatement.

No Trace of Remorse

Polanski devotes an entire chapter of his autobiography to Samantha Gailey, and yet there is no trace of remorse in his writing. He describes the sex he had with a 13-year-old the way one might describe sex with a normal, adult woman, and he even claims that she enjoyed it. But he says nothing about the girl resisting his advances, or about the anal sex. There is no sense of reflection in his account of the incident. "How was I supposed to hit upon the crazy idea of seeing what happened as rape?" he writes.

Over the years, he was asked about the incident again and again in interviews. The more time passed, the surlier his reaction became. He felt persecuted, both by the American justice system and by the press, but tried to clear away the wreckage of his past. He remarried, this time to actress Emmanuelle Seigner, born in 1966, and the couple now has two children.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Past Catches up with Polanski

Foto: epa ansa Ruggieri/ picture-alliance/ dpa

Polanski paid a settlement to Samantha Gailey. Today her last name is Geimer and she lives on the Hawaiian island of Kauai with her family. Six years ago, when Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for his film "The Pianist," she wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. "If he could resolve his problems, I'd be happy," she wrote. "I hope that would mean I'd never have to talk about this again. Sometimes I feel like we both got a life sentence." Earlier this year, she even petitioned a California court to have the charges against Polanski dismissed. She wants to finally be able to live in peace, instead of constantly being confronted with the details of what happened to her as a child.

Warrant for His Arrest

Polanski almost returned to the United States once. At the instigation of the district attorney and Polanski's attorney at the time, shortly after the proceedings were terminated in 1978, the judge who had initially heard the case was replaced for reasons of alleged conflict of interest. Polanski was to return to the United States, where he would receive a suspended sentence. But the deal fell through when the new judge allegedly demanded that the sentencing portion of the trial be broadcast on television. The judge later denied this.

Since then, there has been an international warrant for Polanski's arrest -- for more than 31 years now. According to the district attorney's office, seven attempts were made to execute the warrant in various countries -- seven in 31 years. It isn't that many.

In Germany there was only one attempt to arrest Polanski, in 2005. Interpol submitted a request to German authorities for the "determination of (Polanski's) whereabouts." It wanted the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) to find out where Polanski was living and to arrest him if necessary. BKA officials, coordinating their response with the German Justice Ministry and Foreign Ministry, responded by saying they would not search for Polanski in their computer systems, because anyone who read a newspaper knew that he lived in Paris.

Polanski could have continued living as a fugitive more or less indefinitely. Although he lacked the freedom to travel to Britain or Canada, let alone the United States, he was otherwise left alone.

In Custody

The fact that Roman Polanski is now in Swiss custody awaiting extradition, after 31 years has to do with a documentary film that revisited the case last year. The film, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," by director Marina Zenovich, does not gloss over Polanski's crime but it does reveal the problems with the case against him at the time and it also makes it clear that the judge felt that his reputation was more important than the case itself.

After the film was released Polanski's attorneys filed a petition in late 2008 to have the case dismissed and in July they accused the district attorney's office of having never seriously attempted to have Polanski arrested abroad because such an arrest would only have led to an investigation of the original proceedings. The attorneys' accusations may have been a mistake.

On Sept. 23, three days before Polanski's arrival in Switzerland, the US Justice Department sent a formal request to the Swiss Federal Office of Justice in Bern to have the director arrested.

Legal experts are now looking into whether Polanski can even be extradited. It partly depends on the countries' respective statutes of limitations, which are not the same in the United States as they are in Switzerland.

European-American Culture War

If he is extradited he is likely to receive a relatively minor sentence, according to the district attorney's office in Los Angeles. A 16-month prison term is currently being discussed in the US media, unless Polanski's lawyers push to have the case dismissed, which would be complicated but not impossible. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has already ruled out a pardon.

The Polanski case has turned into something of a European-American culture war, revolving around the question of whether Polanski is in fact a perpetrator or a victim. And whether it is possible that time can turn a perpetrator into a victim.

The legal proceedings in Switzerland could drag on for several more weeks. Bail negotiations failed when the court argued that there was a high risk that Polanski could flee if released from custody. The director's new film, "The Ghost," is currently scheduled to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival next February.

It would be interesting to know what Polanski is thinking -- and to hear his answer to the question posed by the employee of the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office.

LARS-OLAV BEIER, JOHN GOETZ, LOTHAR GORRIS, MARC HUJER, BRITTA SANDBERG, MARTIN WOLF

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan