'The Ghost Writer' Premieres in Berlin Is Roman Polanski's New Film Really about Him?

Roman Polanski's latest thriller, "The Ghost Writer," celebrates its world premiere in Berlin this week -- though without the director. Polanski was arrested in Switzerland last September over a 1977 case involving unlawful sex with a 13-year-old and remains there under house arrest. The film could be seen as a comment on his own situation.

At the premiere of Roman Polanski's new film, "The Ghost Writer," there was no red carpet, fans or photographers. In fact, the screening was somewhat of a subdued affair held in Polanski's Swiss chalet, a wooden house on the outskirts of Gstaad, on January 17, a Sunday.

"Milky Way" is written in old German-style letters on the chalet's façade. Polanski had gotten a home cinema system installed there -- complete with a screen and projector -- to ensure that the sound and images were perfect. A few days earlier, his producer had sent him a DVD of the movie's final version from Paris.


Photo Gallery: Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer"

Foto: Kinowelt

But Polanski didn't want to watch the film -- his film -- alone, so he invited a friend, British writer Robert Harris, over to Gstaad. Harris is the author of a number of bestsellers, including "Fatherland" and "Pompeii." Over the last three years, he's been Polanski's most important collaborator. Harris wrote the novel on which "The Ghost Writer" was based, and the two men penned the screenplay together.

Harris traveled from England especially for the screening. "I took a bottle of champagne with me which we opened when the film finished," he says. "With reason, I think, because under the most difficult circumstances, something was created."

This Friday, Harris will be traveling to attend yet another celebration for the film. This time it will be its official world premiere at the 60th Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival. "The Ghost Writer" is in competition for a Golden Bear, but it is not the festival's opening film. "People would have thought we were making a statement about something we don't want to get involved in," says Dieter Kosslick, the festival's director.

More than 2,000 guests are expected to attend the film's screening on Potsdamer Platz, including the movie's stars, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, the former James Bond actor. But one person who won't be there is Polanski himself.

Criminal or Survivor?

On September 26, Polanski was arrested at Zurich Airport. The sins of the past had caught up with him in the form of an American arrest warrant issued more than 30 years ago. In 1977, a then-43-year-old Polanski had unlawful sex with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. For 42 days, he was locked up in a state penitentiary in Chino, California, for psychological evaluation.

Eventually, everyone involved in the case -- including the lawyer representing the victim -- agreed that Polanski should be given a suspended sentence. But the judge changed his mind at the last moment. On January 31, 1978, a day before sentencing was due to take place, Polanski got on a one-way flight from Los Angeles to Europe. He has never returned to the United States -- not even to receive the Oscar he won for his Holocaust drama "The Pianist." It made no difference that his victim had publicly forgiven him and called for the case to be dropped.

For a long time, the sex scandal was seen as nothing more than another bizarre episode in the incredible life of Roman Polanski, a man considered one of the greatest geniuses of the cinematic genre, a master survivor who was born in Paris in 1933, grew up in Krakow, Poland, and later directed masterpieces, such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown." The Nazis killed Polanski's mother in Auschwitz. In 1969, followers of the Satanist Charles Manson murdered his second wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child.

Silence and Seclusion

Since his arrest in Zurich, the Polanski case has become political dynamite, a cultural battle polarizing half the world. Politicians have weighed in on the matter, as did many of Polanski's big-name colleagues from the film world. Supporters have signed pro-Polanski petitions -- often without even knowing the details of the case -- while his opponents have slandered him as a child abuser, mostly out of blind rage. The Wall Street Journal demanded that Polanski be brought to justice in the US, claiming that he lived "in a tightly sealed echo chamber of self-congratulation surrounded by yes-men who are dedicated to doing what he wants."

Polanski spent two months in a Swiss prison. His lawyers were joined by legal experts in Switzerland, France and the US in their battle to prevent his extradition. Eventually, in early December, he was released on bail for 4.5 million Swiss francs ($4.2 million/€3.1 million). He was given a police escort back to his chalet in Gstaad, where he has lived since leaving jail. Upon his arrival, he was met by more than a hundred photographers, cameramen and journalists, some of whom had hired helicopters to capture aerial footage of his arrival. "Jackals" is what Polanski calls the masses camped outside his house. He doesn't talk to reporters. If you're lucky, he'll write you an e-mail: "I'm sorry, but I don't wish to be interviewed."

Since Polanski isn't talking, his friend Robert Harris is speaking out on his behalf. The 52-year-old writer lives in an old vicarage in the English county of Berkshire about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of London. The house looks like a small castle straight out of a Jane Austin film set. Four cars -- one of them an Aston Martin -- are parked in the driveway. Although he was once a political correspondent, he now looks more like rural gentry. Last year he wrote a scathing op-ed piece in the New York Times in his friend's defense: "Why arrest Roman Polanski now?" he demanded. "If Mr. Polanski is such a physical danger and moral affront to civilized society that he must be locked up," Harris asked, why hadn't anyone done so before? Harris added that there were good reasons why no one had.

"Someone has to defend him," Harris says today. "But if one person makes an argument in defense of Roman, five people make an argument against him." He won't reveal what the two friends have discussed in recent weeks, preferring only to say, "I think the best answer to his enemies is to do what he does best: make a good movie."

Striking Similarities

Polanski had originally wanted to film Harris' historical novel "Pompeii." While they were collaborating on the project, Harris had to go to Paris because Polanski's arrest warrant prevented him from traveling to Britain. They wrote the screenplay together, but the special effects would have required a budget of $150 million (€109 million). So Harris sent Polanski a copy of his new novel, "The Ghost," together with a humorous dedication: "Maybe we should make this next: no volcanoes, no togas."

"The Ghost Writer" is the story of a smart former British prime minister named Adam Lang, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony Blair. The fictional ex-prime minister is working on his memoirs, for which he was already paid a €10 million advance, and his publisher is pressuring him to finish it as soon as possible. As is customary in such cases, a ghost writer is hired -- though, in this case, it's actually the second one. The first ghost writer, who had been one of Lang's long-time aides, drowned under suspicious circumstances off Martha's Vineyard.

It is there, on that exclusive island off America's East Coast, that the publisher has a vacation home, which he has put at the former premier's disposal while he works on his book. But the new ghost writer has hardly sat down with the man whose autobiography he is supposed to pen before trouble breaks out. The politician has been under fire for years for following the US into war in Iraq. Now the International Criminal Court in The Hague is after him for having allowed British citizens to be abducted as part of the war on terror, which is supposedly a war crime. It's an unusually current and politically explosive theme for a thriller spiked with vitriolic comments about the United States. When Polanski got the book, Harris recalls, he said, "The book is the screenplay."

In the book, the former prime minister finds himself trapped in the US because of the investigation. His lawyer says: "(As) your attorney, I strongly advise you not to travel to any country that recognizes the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. All it would take is for two of these three judges to decide to grandstand to the human rights crowd, go ahead and issue a warrant, and you could be picked up." Staying in the US, the ex-prime minister says, is "not as bad as being led away in handcuffs from Heathrow."

Blurring Fact and Fiction

This fictional politician's problems almost perfectly mirror those of the real-life Roman Polanski. Both of them are cosmopolitan men trapped by their past and severely restricted in their movements. Both are powerful individuals at war with a system that they view as being unfair. "If the British government wants to hand me over to this kangaroo court," Harris' fictional ex-prime minister says, "then fuck them! I'll go where people want me."

Given these similarities, the film could be seen as making a comment on Polanski's own situation or as supporting the case he made in his 1984 autobiography: "As far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred."

The similarity between Polanski's reality and the novel's fiction, Harris says, "must have been one of the things that attracted him to it." "Maybe subconsciously," he adds. In any case, the irony of the story is "hard to overlook," especially since the film is set in the two countries Polanski can't travel to: England and America.

In the end, the film was shot in Germany. The islands of Sylt and Usedom doubled as Martha's Vineyard, while Berlin's Charlottenstrasse was transformed into a London street by adding red double-decker buses and English-language signs. As precarious as Polanski's situation may appear, he has been lucky in his misfortune. "If he had been arrested in April, let's say, when he was living freely in Berlin, it would have been a disaster," Harris says. "It would have been bankruptcy."

In April 2009, Polanski was hard at work shooting the $40 million production. If a main actor breaks a leg or the director is run over by a bus during shooting, the insurance company picks up the tab for any financial losses incurred. But there is no insurance against arrest warrants that are decades old.

Living in Uncertainty

While Polanski was in jail awaiting extradition in Winterthur, Switzerland, the only visitors he was allowed were his lawyer and his wife. Although the shooting phase of the film had been completed, post-production was still in full swing. In order to allow Polanski to stay abreast of the film's progress, his lawyer would bring him DVDs of the film as it was being edited. Robert Benmussa, the film's producers, will assure you that: "The final cut is exactly the final cut he would like to have." One time, when Harris visited Polanski in jail, he was in the process of checking the film's German subtitles.

These days, Polanski has to wear an electronic ankle monitor. If he tries to leave his property in Gstaad and flee -- to France, for example, where he'd be safe from American prosecutors -- the tag will set off an alarm. If he stays put, Polanski is free to live in his chalet and do as he pleases until the courts have ruled on the extradition request. He can receive guests, make phone calls, drink champagne, reflect on his future or even play music. In fact, Polanski sings a duet in French with his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, on her latest album. "What are you doing in my bed?" Seigner asks. "I am love personified," Polanski replies.

Toward the end of last year, Polanski wrote a letter to Parisian intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy thanking everyone for the support he had received "from across the world." With Polanski's consent, Levy published the letter on his Web site. In it, Polanski said expressions of solidarity were "heartening" to those locked in a cell and that these messages had been "a source of comfort and hope" to him in his "darkest moments."

Polanski's uncertainty about his future will probably persist for quite some time. On January 22, a judge in California rejected a petition by Polanski's lawyers to conduct the proceedings in Los Angeles and in the director's absence. "I choose to insist in the defense of the integrity of the judicial system that he appear," Judge Peter Espinoza said, calling the initial ruling "a carrot … not a stick." Polanski's lawyers plan to challenge the judge's decision.

Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlump has said that the extradition proceedings could last "up to a year."

Indeed, it's starting to seem as if all sides are more than happy to just let the case drag on. The Americans are waiting on a decision from the Swiss -- and the Swiss on a decision from America. Polanski's wife says her husband has already gotten started on his next film. Reportedly, it's an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play "The God of Carnage" -- all of which takes place in a single room.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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