When director Roman Polanski was being held under house arrest in Switzerland, he made good use of his time. He and long time friend Andrew Braunsberg, who is also a film producer, set out to make their own “My Dinner with Andre.” They filmed an ongoing conversation about Polanski’s life from his harrowing childhood in the Holocaust, to the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn baby (as well as their friends) to the scandal involving Polanski sleeping with a 13 year old girl in 1977.
The result is “Roman Polanski: A Memoir.” Shown in Cannes last May, the riveting film has been sold in most markets around the world. But it still has no American distributor. Most of the independent film companies, as well as HBO, I’m told simply found Polanski too problematic a subject — especially in an election year.
This is really too bad and extremely disappointing. “Memoir” is fascinating. It does nothing to whitewash Polanski’s legal problems. Rather, they are addressed head on. And though many people like to recall their own version of his story, Polanski did serve time in prison — 42 days. He did plead guilty to sex with a minor. Court psychologists determined that he was not a pedophile but had made one single poor choice. A deal was in place with the court in Los Angeles. But a corrupt system let the judge begin fiddling with the agreement. Polanski was suddenly at the judge’s mercy with no concrete agreement on which he could rely. He left the United States not as a fugitive but a man in legal limbo.
There’s a lot more to the film. Particularly riveting is Polanski’s memory of the Holocaust in Krakau, Poland. His mother, who was pregnant, was taken by the Nazis and killed immediately. His father was taken away but returned. His sister somehow made it to Paris. Polanski, 12, went to live with a non Jewish family, then bounced around from place to place. Braunsberg juxtaposes Polanski’s story telling with archival footage and scenes from the director’s watershed film “The Pianist.” It’s quite remarkable.
Polanski also discusses the “Helter Skelter” murders by Charles Manson and his cult followers of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their friends. It’s the first time I can think that Polanski has really sat for an indepth interview since one with Diane Sawyer in the early 90s.
Of course, eventually Polanki’s house arrest was lifted. He is no longer in danger of extadition by the US government. The many lies and distortions in his case, perpetrated by the court in Los Angeles, were revealed in another documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” That this situation persists, considering that the 13 year old girl, Samantha Geimer, is now almost 50 and has long since absolved Polanski, is a tragedy.
The best thing Braunsberg can do is make a video on demand deal for “Memoir” so that anyone who has formed a preconceived notion about Polanski can see– right in their own living rooms, or at their computers–what really happened and what this important director has lived through.