Two years after police in Zurich led Roman Polanski away to prison, the Oscar-winning director returned to a very different reception in the city, where he wrapped himself in applause and recognition Tuesday night by picking up a cinematic award and releasing a “memoir” of his life that had been treated like a state secret.
The Polish-French director of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist took the stage of the Zurich Film Festival to finally accept the lifetime achievement award that he was unable to pick up in 2009, after being arrested for the decades-old sex-crime case.
He had been arrested by Swiss police on arrival at the Zurich airport on a U.S. warrant from 1978, then spent months in prison and later house arrest because of charges that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
But he successfully avoided extradition to the United States after the Swiss government declined to deport him.
Now able to travel unhindered to Switzerland, Polanski, 78, arrived at the festival hall as a spotlight followed him. Several hundred people stood to applaud him as he took his seat. He later strode to the stage amid nearly a minute’s sustained clapping.
“Friends, what can I can say? Better late than never,” he began, as the audience erupted in laughter.
“Two years, day for day. Certain parts of it I would rather forget. But I’m happy to be here, because I know that it was not only a blow to me, to my family, but also to the festival itself,” he said. “It’s a very moving moment for me.”
Though Polanski could joke about the ordeal, he acknowledged the pain of it but said little else, allowing the world premier of a full-length documentary — Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir — to largely speak for him.
This year, his new film, Carnage, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. But his “other” new film — the memoir — was kept secret by Zurich’s film organizers. The film recounts his Polish roots and includes footage of World War II and the Nazi invasion of Poland interspersed with scense from The Pianist.
The documentary by Laurent Bouzereau is based on interviews with Polanski during his house arrest two years ago, and begins with shots of the Swiss prison that Polanski was incarcerated at, as well as photos of his chalet in the chic resort of Gstaad in the Swiss Alps.
By turns funny and sad, wistful and horrified, Polanski recounts a kaleidoscope of memories, such as seeing a woman shot in the back by a Nazi, his running away from a Nazi soldier shooting at him, and being reunited with his father and seeing the wall in Warsaw first being built.
Polanski talks about his mother’s death, the pain of his father remarrying another woman, and their visit to him in Gstaad where his father cried upon hearing music that reminded him of children being loaded into train barracks to be exterminated.
“It was an Apocalyptic, surrealistic vision,” Polanski recalled of the moment.
Polanski said he watched films so he could read subtitles: “I started really learning to read in the cinema,” he said.