The devil's playground

Roman Polanski can't understand why anyone would take his new movie seriously

Roman Polanski begins this interview by asking the questions -- about last names, countries of origin, family members murdered by the Nazis. After all, as much as any landmark film (Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby) or connection to tragedy (the 1969 murder of his wife Sharon Tate by members of Charles Manson's "family") or notorious escapade (his 1977 conviction for raping a 13-year-old girl), Polanski's story is that of loss, terror, and escape. He fled the Nazis, spent his childhood on the run, and lost his own mother to the gas chambers. He likes to hear other Jews tell their stories, perhaps because he wants to relate somehow or perhaps because he just wants to share. It's the subject closest to his own heart, a wound still painfully fresh.

Indeed, though his latest film, the laconic demonic thriller The Ninth Gate, arrives in theaters this week, Polanski would almost rather talk about his next film, which he has yet to shoot or write. If all goes as planned, it will be an adaptation of Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography The Pianist, about life in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Szpilman, whose book was published in the United States last September, was a pianist for Polish radio before World War II, and when the Germans invaded, he was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. His mother tried to maintain some semblance of normality amidst the chaos and death, which only made things worse for the young Wladyslaw; the "normal" became only more aberrant. Later, he would be loaded into a train with his family, headed for certain death -- only to be released before reaching his final destination. He would survive the war, but only with the help of a German soldier who cared for him when it became obvious the Nazis were doomed.

That Polanski would be drawn to such material is inevitable. After all, it bears such a resemblance to his own life: The Pianist is like the shadow that has tailed Polanski since he was child in Krakow, enduring German occupation. His 1984 autobiography Roman contains familiar echoes of Szpilman's book: Polanski writes of a mother who kept the family's apartment "spick-and-span," a village that smelled of bustling markets and fresh loaves of bread, a loving father who "often hurt my feelings in little ways." Polanski would live behind the brick and barbed wire of Krakow until March 13, 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated and his father, who would survive the war, was marched off to the camps. His mother had gone earlier, never to return: She was gassed only days after being led from Krakow. Until the end of the war, little Roman lived with various families in the countryside of Poland, though it was far from an idyllic existence.

Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp stare into the beady eyes of evil on the set of The Ninth Gate.
Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp stare into the beady eyes of evil on the set of The Ninth Gate.

"This is a film I always wanted to make," the 66-year-old Polanski says of The Pianist. "But I was waiting for the right time, and I think I got the right book. I thought, 'This is it.' I know the guy. He's still alive. He's 87. And he's a great pianist, and the element of music in it is superb, don't you think so? And I always wanted to do this, but I was not ready for it yet. First of all, it seems the right atmosphere for doing this, in view of what's happening in Europe and other places. I was too close to it. I need a certain...What do you call it?...maturity to do it."

Polanski has had his chances to make his Holocaust movie: Steven Spielberg approached him about doing Schindler's List, but Polanski passed. He was not yet ready -- and, more to the point, the film bore too painful a resemblance to his own story. It was set in the Krakow Ghetto, and the notion of walking amongst those ruins did not sit well with the writer-director.

"It was too close to what I went through," he says, an audible shrug slipping through his lilting accent. "I must say, I was avoiding the subject most of my life. I wrote about it in my book, because my book recounts my life, so I was very happy to get it all out. But I didn't dwell on it, and most people I know who went through it try to sweep it under the carpet. Szpilman himself wrote the book right after the war, but then he did not talk about it, even with his son."

And so the conversation goes for a little while, until Polanski decides it would be wise to talk about The Pianist when it's released. The Ninth Gate, his new baby, needs all the help the writer-director can muster, especially since he must promote it from Paris, where he has been on the lam from the rape conviction since 1977. He would love to come to the States and make the talk-show rounds, but there will be no such promotional tour. Such is the fate of a man forever on the run.

The Ninth Gate is only Polanski's seventh film since 1973's Chinatown; he works at a dead man's pace, which is perhaps appropriate, since he is a corpse as far as most in Hollywood are concerned. His résumé since Chinatown is sparse and inconsistent: Save for 1979's elegiac Tess and 1994's desolate adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, he has produced little of note. Frantic, released in 1988, was the sort of Hitchcockian thriller even Brian De Palma has grown tired of making, and 1986's Pirates, a spoof starring Walter Matthau, is one step above Yellowbeard on the har-de-har-arrrgh food chain. Yet the pickings have been slim for Polanski: His distance from Hollywood has limited his choices, often to nothing at all. Over the past two decades, he has acted in nearly as many films (all European productions with little or no U.S. release) as he has directed.

The Ninth Gate, adapted from the Spanish novel El Club Dumas, hardly feels as though a "great director" made it. It plays like a tossed-off parody, one long punch line to a joke that began with the director's own The Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967 and Rosemary's Baby a year later. It's the anti-End of Days, a languorous thriller about rare-book merchant Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, still in high Ichabod Crane mode) sent by sinister publisher Boris Balkan (played with deadpan glee by Frank Langella, whose PIN number for everything is "666") to track down the two remaining copies of a book containing illustrations allegedly drawn by the devil himself. Eventually, we're led to believe, these drawings will summon Lucifer, who will then welcome the keeper of these drawings into the Ninth Gate -- where, of course, immortality awaits.

But the payoff never arrives, at least not the one we've been led to expect (by this film and so many others like it). There are no garish special effects, no grand revelations unveiled from behind the curtain. There is no cathartic release, only a shrug of an ending -- Polanski's gag, delivered with a nod and a wink. (This is a movie in which Depp refers to an attractive woman as "dishy.") Artisan, which is distributing the picture, might well be offering up The Ninth Gate as a supernatural thriller (its trailer makes it look like Stigmata), but it's simply a droll comedy hiding behind a devil's mask.

"How can you take this theme seriously?" Polanski wonders. "I really don't understand it. How can an adult, an intelligent person, believe in the devil? And you have to believe in the devil in order to make a serious film about it. I remember, when I was doing Rosemary's Baby, the only trouble with the subject was that at the end of the day, she gives birth to the devil's offspring, and I tried to make the film in such a way that it could be interpreted two ways. You can just assume it's all her imagination."

In The Ninth Gate, people aren't just murdered -- they're found with their tongues dangling from their mouths, their eyes bulging out, their electric wheelchairs bumping endlessly against walls. Such moments are hysterical, which is just as Polanski intended it, even though reviewers in Europe -- where the film opened last year -- seem to miss the point. One French review deemed the film a disappointment because it wasn't "scary at all."

"I realized, to my surprise and horror, that Kafka is not perceived as a writer with a sense of humor outside of Poland and Czechoslovakia," he says. "I remember reading Kafka, and I saw a lot of comedy elements in it, but in France, about eight years ago, I acted in Metamorphosis, and I realized the French don't see any humor in it. And with The Ninth Gate, when we were writing the script, we had so much fun, and we were laughing at so many lines and situations. Then I realized that not everybody gets that." Polanski chuckles. "I think youngsters see more humor in the film than adults. You can't take horror movies seriously."

Not so long ago, Polanski's friends insisted he was desperate to return to Hollywood -- desperate to become part of the system he was forced to abandon and to work on a regular basis. Now, he insists that is not true, that his difficulty in getting films made has only "a little bit" to do with his distance from the machinery. Polanski insists that he simply hasn't found projects he would like to make, and that when he does, the money is not there. He longs for the good old days, before films were made by committees instead of men like Robert Evans, the producer who nearly willed Chinatown into existence.

"In years before, I remember not only myself but all my colleagues shooting a film a year," he says. "Now, if someone makes a film every three years, he considers himself lucky. And it's frustrating. Also, with time, you hesitate more. You think about what kind of battle it represents, how much it involves. Before you plunge, you think twice. The system has changed drastically, I must say. And I don't know if I fit in. It's more of a struggle to get a more ambitious or exciting project together."

In his book, Polanski wrote with the tone of a man at his end, an artist so exhausted and beleaguered, he seemed to be disappearing on the final pages. And, yes, one could sense his self-pity, his cry to be understood and perhaps even forgiven (though for nothing he did, of course). But his was a rather tangible pain, and nowhere was it more evident than when he wrote, "I seem to be toiling to no discernable purpose."

Sixteen years later, he is asked how he overcame that. After all, a man who believes his work has no meaning would not work at all.

"I simply don't think about it," he says. Then he pauses for a moment and emits a slight, sad laugh. "It's the way it is. It's c'est la vie, as they say."

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