Dance of the Vampires

Neal Ascherson

  • Roman by Roman Polanski
    Heinemann, 393 pp, £12.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 434 59180 7

‘I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.’ So declares Roman Polanski, moodily kicking his souvenirs about on the last page of this autobiography. Of all the films he never made, the most revealing might have been the project he cooked up years ago in Paris for a sexually-explicit Snow White, with a mongoloid news vendor from St Germain-des-Prés as Prince Charming, a homosexual yodelling choir as musical accompaniment and a troupe of midget wrestlers to play the Seven Dwarves. The treatment was put together by him and his friend Gérard Brach, equally underset and insatiable. The financier Pierre Braunberger, who failed to see that he was billed as the real Prince Charming in this revolting allegory, was happy with everything except the midgets, who proved too expensive. On their account, he withdrew his money and the film collapsed before a frame had been shot. He may have saved his family from the poorhouse by doing so, for Polanski, like the seven hammerlocking dwarfs, was a spectacular overspender.

But Polanski is also, to invent a word, a grand overqualifier. He cannot help making films which are not only more expensive but far superior in quality to the intentions of those who finance them. ‘We asked for a Mini-Cooper and you give us a Rolls!’ squalled the promoters of Repulsion. The film known variously as The Fearless Vampire-Killers or Dance of the Vampires was never meant by its backers to be one of the wittiest of all film parodies, and indeed one of the producers – to whom, in a moment of insane confidence, Polanski had given rights over the American version – cut it down to drivel for United States audiences. Polanski’s hectic style of life, his constant personal and financial crises, ending with the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and Polanski’s imprisonment for ‘raping’ a juvenile in California, have obscured the aspect of him which really matters: that he is the most consistently brilliant of all the film-makers who have emerged from post-war Poland. Andrzej Wajda is a greater genius, but even he does not have Polanski’s unerring talent for visual showmanship.

Polanski is a child of the streets, who learned before his voice broke that it was a choice between hustling and dying. He was born in a middle-class Jewish family in pre-war Krakow (his real first name is Raymond, which he dropped for the more Polish ‘Roman’ as soon as he went to school). After the outbreak of war, he found himself immured in the same Krakow ghetto which is the background of Schindler’s Ark, but soon bored himself a hole in the wire through which he could escape into the rest of the city. When the first German razzias into the ghetto began, he was lodged outside with a Christian family: small and fair-haired, he ‘passed for Aryan’ while his mother was taken to the gas-chambers and his father deported to a series of concentration camps. As the hunt for Jews in Krakow grew more intense, Roman was passed on to the Buchala family, poor peasants in a remote village who had never seen a motor-car and could not imagine an electric light. Here he worked in the fields, shared the family’s hunger and overcrowding, and picked up all the customs, superstitions and psalmody of Polish rural Catholicism. In spite of the constant danger – he had to wash alone, to conceal his circumcision, and was shot at by marauding German soldiers – Roman Polanski learned to love and respect a very different Poland, one mocked and despised by intellectual city-dwellers. And he read his first books, discovered after a rummage through Mrs Buchala’s trunk: a Catholic volume of edifying children’s tales called The Soldier of the Immaculate Queen and a Polish translation of the 12th-century Song of Roland.

But he was already more than just a pious orphan. His fascination with film had begun while he was still in the ghetto, as he and a group of small friends found a place where they could watch from behind the wire the propaganda movies staged in the open air by the Germans for the population of Krakow: ‘every so often, during breaks in the proceedings, the following words were flashed on the screen: “JEWS = LICE! = TYPHUS!”.’

He traded much of his stamp collection to persuade another small boy to show him scenes from silent films on a toy projector, screened on a dirty towel. Later, when he was at large in the city after escaping from the ghetto, he and a friend became incurable movie addicts. The films were all German, and the Resistance slogan threatened: ‘Only swine go to the movies.’ Roman and his friend took no notice. Once they even bluffed their way into a cinema ‘for Germans only’, risking their lives for what turned out to be a miserable screened pantomime, ‘a thoroughly lousy film’. He was back in Krakow in time for the liberation. It was a marvellous period for a small marauder on the streets: Russian trucks piled with loot edged through the slush, law and order evaporated, German storehouses and barracks were plundered. Roman became a ‘scavenger’, thieving everything from Wehrmacht badges to ammunition and explosives; after narrowly failing to blow himself up with a German grenade, he went on to find a cache of bakelite toys in an attic. He sold them for a sort of primitive epidiascope, which absorbed him for hours. He built a crystal radio set, and developed a taste for staging plays, using an upturned wardrobe as scenery. After the war ended, the remnants of Polanski’s family spotted him on the street, dragged him back into an overcrowded version of home life and sent him to school. But the interests of those street years survived. He and his best friend, the satanic Piotr Winowski, did little in class but madden their teachers and spent most of their time in the cinema, looting the dustbins for discarded lengths of film after the performances. The first films were coming in from the West, and Polanski saw the Olivier Hamlet some twenty times. After that, he read the entire works of Shakespeare in Polish, followed by a book about film-making.

Roman Polanski was 13, tiny for his age, shrewd beyond his years and very uncertain about where he belonged. After the Occupation and his years with the Buchalas, he did not feel or wish to be Jewish: at the same time, the Catholic priest who was also his schoolteacher gave him such an atrocious grilling when he affected to be a son of the Church that Christianity ceased to attract him either. His father had survived the camps, but on his return to Poland had taken up life with a woman whom the young Roman instantly and inevitably rejected as his mother’s usurper. All this forms a well-known recipe for adolescent hooliganism. Polanski, however, who would have made a memorable little hoodlum in those years of black market and violence, surmounted his own existential terrors by becoming an entertainer. On a scout holiday, he had discovered his own gifts as a stand-up comic reciter. Now he was picked by the local radio station in Krakow to play a part in a ‘Communist-flavoured soap opera’ for children called The Merry Gang, and this in turn led to a part in a Soviet play and then a job in the Groteska puppet theatre.

It looked as if he was going to become an actor. But there was always some extra drive in Polanski – a wish not simply to be admired but to ‘bend others to his will’, in the old phrase – which meant that mere performance would not satisfy his hunger to push the world about as it had pushed him. As it eventually turned out, he became a film director. But it is worth playing a brief ‘if’ game here. Polanski happened to experience Polish Stalinism as a teenager: in other words, he grew up as a rebel against a bombastic, absurd regime which tried hard to abolish all the pleasures and excitements he really enjoyed. Jazz was seditious, clothes which were not overalls or functionaries’ suits were signs of bourgeois narcissism, modern dancing was a form of hooliganism, forms of art other than socialist realism were sicknesses requiring instant surgical treatment. At his age, Polanski responded like most of his contemporaries: he glued his ear to the radio for AFN jazz programmes and joined a gaudy youth mob known as the Pheasants – a Teddy Boy variant with long shoulder-padded plaid jackets, Windsor-knot ties, duck’s-arse hair and the local Krakow addition of a cloth cap stuffed up at the back with newspaper.

He was immune. But if he had been a few years older, Polanski would have been the very type to be drawn into the young leadership of the regime. He was utterly uprooted, without firm attachment to any of Poland’s traditional cultures, whether Catholic or Jewish. He had no personal stake in the past, no family ties to restrain him, and plenty of experience of poverty and inequality in Poland. At the same time, he was not a cynic. Polanski might well have fallen hard for an idealistic creed if it had been offered to him at the right moment in his life, and his colossal compensatory drive to organise others could have taken a political direction. Men much like him in background and temperament, but a few years older, rode madly down the switchback of history which led from rapturous and dogmatic Stalinism down through disillusion to extremes of liberal ‘revisionist’ Communism after the dictator’s death. If Polanski had been only as old as twenty when the war ended, he might have wound up as an enlightened cultural bureaucrat, perhaps a Party secretary for the arts. Instead, providentially, he went to the Lodz Film School and has never shown respect for authority since.

His Lodz period provides the most entertaining and suggestive part of the whole autobiography. It is not just a matter of famous names, of the young talent fermenting in or around the School which was about to launch the Polish film industry on a thirty-year tidal wave of glory which is still running. Wajda was around, and his black-spectacled star Zbigniew Cybulski, and the young ex-boxer Skolimowski, and the writer Marek Hlasko swimming from one brawl to the next down rivers of vodka. It is not even Polanski’s Gogolian description of characters about the school who never became famous: meet Wieslaw Arct, the School’s most fanatical Communist student, who was tormented into paranoid schizophrenia by his colleagues and committed to a mental ward by the Director after Arct had warned him of a counter-revolutionary plot, and who was last seen by Polanski lying in a hospital bed muttering and covered with bruises, the other patients having duffed him up for tearing a crucifix off the wall – there’s a rich slice of Polish life and Polish film in the tale of Comrade Arct. What matters more than the people is the vigour of the whole environment. This was a special generation in the Eastern Europe of the late Fifties. Its members had seen and experienced the extremes of human violence and savagery as children, during the Occupation. They had then been obliged to forfeit their teens to the killjoy regimentation of Stalinism. Now they were ready to explode and escape, to break out of prison and use their talents all over the world.

A great deal of abuse comes Polanski’s way on the subject of ‘gratuitous’ violence. He is presented as some cackling little ringmaster of sado-masochism, and indeed the American press at first reported the massacre of Cielo Drive, the murder of Sharon Tate and her companions, as a natural extension of Polanski’s fantasies to their logical conclusion. This analysis seems totally wrong, and it is difficult to understand why Polanski rather than, say, Peckinpah is cast as the prince of Grand Guignol. Again, this is a question of generations and their experience. Killing and carnage and cruelty do not form some titillating forbidden zone for Poles in their forties today: most of them have seen plenty of it and it holds no particular mystery. Roman Polanski was a very small child when he watched an SS officer pull out his pistol and blow a hole in an old Jewish woman begging for mercy at his feet. At the same time, the fact that violence of this intensity was witnessed in childhood has built it into the consciousness of that generation as a foundation-stone. An account of life and relationships which does not allow for what human beings are capable of doing to one another, or for the shock inflicted on the witness of violence, is not going to stand up. But this doesn’t mean that the depiction of violence has to be reverential – or even garnished with moral disapproval. Brutality, after all, can be interesting as spectacle alone. The child’s eye sees Catherine Deneuve despatching her visitors with a cut-throat razor, or Banquo’s murder, or demonic pregnancy in Rosemary’s Baby, and although that eye can dilate a bit, it remains beady. It does not shed tears – but of course it can narrow with laughter. Like any strenuous, earnest activity (chopping logs, sex, pole-vaulting), killing has its comic possibilities, and corpses can learn a dance which is funny as well as macabre – the ‘Dance of the Vampires’, in fact.

The second part of the book is less intriguing. One film-maker’s memoirs of the struggle to get from idea to cinema screen, of the Somme-like battle against weather, bankruptcy, human craziness and trade unions which is an average production, can turn out much like another’s. At least Polanski (as transcribed, if that is the word, by Edward Behr) is witty enough to make several of his own productions memorable. At first, he provoked disaster: while still at Lodz, he enlivened his own apprentice film of the end-of-session school dance by inviting a gang of tearaways to smash the occasion up. Later, Polanski found that disaster needs no invitation. With Knife in the Water, it was Jolanta Umecka bolting food compulsively day and night, the fat woman emerging from inside the slender woman in defiance of the script. With Cul de Sac, everything went wrong as the crew and actors huddled on Lindisfarne, eating mutton, fending off earwigs and growing to hate one another (Polanski enjoys a good hate himself, and his memories of Lionel Stander on this set are venomous). It had to be on the set of Rosemary’s Baby that Mia Farrow was informed that Frank Sinatra no longer wished to be married to her. Chinatown nearly blew to bits when Polanski, fed up with Faye Dunaway and in particular with a lock of hers which wouldn’t lie down, took hold of the hair and wrenched it out. On location in Brittany for Tess, the master cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth had a heart attack and died. Macbeth, shot in Wales, nearly sank in mud, rain and the hysteria of the Playboy empire over money: the fog machine blew up and the catapults went limp, and the only reliable element of the production seems to have been the thousand unemployed brought from Newcastle, who marched on Dunsinane for under £5 a day.

There is some compulsion to riffle through this book for the passages about the Manson murder, or about Polanski’s arraignment and imprisonment for ‘raping’ an under-aged girl. But there are no particular thrills here. Polanski doesn’t go into the well-enough-known horrors of the Sharon Tate massacre, except to indicate how much he loved his wife and how atrociously the media behaved to him in the period before the name of Manson rolled off the agency tapes. On his relationship with the teenage Sandra, by contrast, there is a very detailed and long and in the end dull narrative of the Polanski case for the defence. He claims that he did not drug the girl before making love to her, and that his imprisonment in Chino gaol was a perversion of justice. True or not, the trial was clearly a farce. On the other hand, men who chase sex with such frantic dedication as Polanski must expect to fall into booby-traps on occasion. He has been making love to very young girls from the moment of his initiation with a 14-year-old on the floor of a Krakow apartment to his seduction of Nastassia Kinsky in Munich when she was 15, and his tastes had brought him few penalties until Sandra. He had been lucky.

And Polanski did not take it well when his luck ran out. He had seemed irrepressible, indestructible, until Hollywood suddenly turned and clawed him, his wife and unborn child slain in a gruesome massacre, and his reputation shattered by what he maintains was a frame-up. So far, he has not fully recovered, and melancholy has begun to eat more deeply into him as time has passed. Some of his best films were made after Sharon Tate’s murder, but more recently he seems to have come to a standstill. He is reported to have said that he will not direct another film. Polanski’s supreme quality as a film-maker has been called ‘playfulness’, but he does not feel like playing any more. ‘I know in my heart of hearts that the spirit of laughter has deserted me... I seem to be toiling to no discernible purpose. I feel I’ve lost the right to innocence, to a pure appreciation of life’s pleasures.’ And this is not mere showbiz self-pity. Does it seem preposterous that the evil, profligate dwarf should regret his ‘right to innocence’? The granting of that right to his audiences, precisely amid scenes of vice and horror, has been Polanski’s special gift.