As the biopic comes back into fashion — think Kinsey, think A Beautiful Mind — somebody might consider the life of Roman Polanski as perfect big-screen material. Its component elements are the stuff of box-office dreams. Holocaust survival, dodgy sex, motiveless murder, a liberal sprinkling of celebrity, plenty of photogenic locations — the Oscar-winning script is in the bag. Its star, as Christopher Sandford’s biography suggests, boasts unfathomable reserves of chutzpah, and his recent epiphany at the Venice Film Festival was a reminder of how much life the old dog still has left in him.
Polanski’s resilience was tested early, with the dispatch of his Jewish parents to Auschwitz and Mauthausen. Slipping out of Nazi-occupied Krakow, nine-year-old Roman fled to a village in the Tatra mountains, where he slept in a cowshed and lived off rat pie and boiled tree-bark. The postwar communist culture of relentless agitprop and uplift, in which Warsaw theatres staged plays with titles like The Workers’ Hearts Sing Out Like the Locomotive Whistle, made further demands on his survival skills. While still a student at film school in Lodz, he began plotting to ‘get the f*** out of Poland, grow a beard and become a writer’, but not before he had made his earliest screen masterpiece, Knife in the Water (1962).
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