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!”.’

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