Roman Polanski, perhaps the most irreconcilable and disturbing of all filmmakers, possesses a sort of quiet mastery that doesn’t seem to be in vogue these days. The release of Polanski’s most recent film, The Ghost Writer, last winter almost opposite of Martin Scorsese’s technically amazing yet ludicrously overbearing Shutter Island succinctly illustrated the kind of cinema that audiences, even professed cinephiles, seem to be more frequently favoring. Scorsese put on an obsessive formal fireworks show that was intent on living up to its director’s status as a creator of culturally minted masterpieces, while Polanski quietly exhilarated with his immense knowledge of the kind of film craft that moves a story forward with two frames of film when another director may have needed 15.
The Ghost Writer, one of the best films of 2010, was pulp that was unmistakably for adults—the work of a master taking pleasure in his command of technique. The film also tells the story that has chiefly concerned Polanski’s work: that of a (comparative) innocent who’s somehow simultaneously more naïve and corruptible than he believes himself to be—a lesson he’s bound to learn the hard way. The Ghost Writer is a sharp, sexy, disconcertingly intimate political thriller that concludes with a final image that brings to mind the devastating concluding futility of Polanski’s more despairing Chinatown: The ghost’s pursuits ultimately add up to a bunch of disconnected pages blowing in the wind.
The Ghost Writer deserved to become a hit, but it ultimately made in its total American release less than a typical Happy Madison production earns in its first weekend. Some columnists assumed the film, which was favorably reviewed, financially underperformed because it was overshadowed by the reemergence of the controversy that has haunted Polanski’s reputation since the late 1970s: the dispute in Switzerland that he should be forced to return to America for a statutory rape charge that has been heavily contested and endlessly debated for more than 30 years. Yet, controversy or not, The Ghost Writer is the type of witty, assured piece of filmmaking that our frenzied, hyperbolic pop culture has increasingly less room for, which makes the Museum of Modern Art’s forthcoming, and impressively exhaustive, Polanski retrospective seem all the more comforting and, yes, even vital to introducing to new students of film one of cinema’s most polarizing masters.
The Polish Polanski, who’s worked on various original scripts (almost always with a co-writer) as well as adaptations of plays and novels both minor and classic, and across several countries and in a variety of languages, has amassed a body of work with a thematic unity that’s shocking when you consider the jolting professional and personal speed bumps of his life. Polanski’s films are almost all dark comedies of futility concerned with perhaps that most essential, and existential, of human torments: the inability to truly know anything, whether it be a society, or a lover (especially a lover), or a friend, or even one’s self. Social order is always on the verge of collapse, or, at the very least re-contextualization, in a Polanski film.
If Polanski’s preoccupations have remained mostly consistent, then his perspectives and approaches have, as you’d expect of a professional in a business for over four decades, evolved. And while I generally loathe neatly contextualizing a man’s entire professional life with prescribed categories, I’ve decided that Polanski’s evolution as a filmmaker can be roughly charted by placing his films in four admittedly debatable and extremely malleable phases that don’t always entirely fall into chronological order, thus rebutting the idea that a man’s life follows one tidy ever-progressing forward course, a notion that most of Polanski’s films would hold in contempt.
The Film Brat
Admittedly the most literal phase, as several of the films covered here were made by Polanski during or right after film school as a man in his early 20s during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The short films right away mark their director as someone with an unerring sense of composing images that develop character relationships while moving the narrative forward—a skill that eludes several A-list American filmmakers. The most famous of Polanski’s shorts is Two Men and a Wardrobe, and while it has its charms, such as that wonderful final shot, it’s one of a number of films that prove that the director isn’t very funny when he’s working in a broad comic style; he’s more comfortable with the kind of gallows humor that sneaks up on you. A Murderer and A Toothful Smile, both early simple sketches of a single scene each, pack more of a punch, and hint at his flair for suggestive, leering evil—and, in the case of A Toothful Smile, his misogyny—that would come to define a key period in the filmmaker’s work. When Angels Fall is a technically accomplished war story that revels in the sort of melodrama that Polanski would largely avoid in his professional work, though it has a ghostly beauty that’s undeniably incredible for a blossoming filmmaker in his early 20s. Mammals and The Fat and the Lean are also visually distinctive, but somewhat tedious in their symbolism and Becket allusions (hints of Cul-de-Sac abound). The best of the shorts though is the disturbing The Lamp, in which the young Polanski spins a terrifying seven-minute film mostly out of images of inanimate objects.
These shorts establish Polanski as an ambitious young director torn between his mysterious, occasionally erotic images and the compulsion to sermonize with blunt symbols that overstate their cause—a tendency that he would refine in his first feature films. If Knife in the Water is undeniably a “student” film in its preoccupation with symbol and thesis, then it must rank as one of the greatest student films ever made. A tough, unsentimental, disturbing, and influential film (it’s obviously an influence on Dead Calm, and Adrian Lynn quoted the final image in Unfaithful, among many others), Knife in the Water is decidedly, and crucially, less earnest than the short films Polanski made to prepare for it.
At this point, Polanski had already perfected a tone of bemused, festering obsession that’s deceptively casual somehow over- and under-wrought at the same time; his darkest films are normally his funniest and most perverse, and this is visually complemented with a shrewd, succinct sense of narrative framing as well as with the use of symbolism that gradually became more tongue and cheek. The symbolism in a Polanski film, especially his work in the 1960s, is so heightened and sometimes so obvious as to be a joke—which it is, but it’s a joke that undermines precisely none of the escalating tension and dread, as it comments on the characters’ usually kinky preoccupations. A typical Polanski symbol, such as the phallic use of the knife or the boat’s mast in Knife in the Water, brings the entire narrative to a head in a fashion so deceptively leisurely that you can barely detect the filmmaker’s (considerable) control.