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Cinephiles refocus debate on Polanski's œuvre

Jack Nicholson, John Huston and Roman Polanski (left to right) working on the set of Chinatown

Swiss cinema fans and industry professionals have paid homage to Roman Polanski at a special evening organised by the Swiss Film Archive in Lausanne.

The organisers said they wanted to recall Polanski's immense talent as a director and his contribution to film history, rather than discuss the ins and outs of the ongoing legal case. But there was sharp criticism of the Swiss authorities over the director's arrest.

The arrest of Polanski in September was a bombshell that "shocked" the cultural world, Fréderic Maire, the new director of the Swiss Film Archive, told swissinfo.ch on Wednesday.

"Our idea was to remind people of Polanski's importance as a filmmaker," he said. "It's the Film Archive's role to watch films, ask questions and discuss such issues."

Maire was accompanied on stage by Swiss director Lionel Baier and François Albera, professor of cinema at Lausanne University.

"Today we only talk about him in terms of morals and hide his strengths and place in cinema history," Baier told the audience.

Albera echoed this sentiment: "When you look at a Caravaggio painting you don't think about the fact that he killed someone and went to prison, you admire his work. Or if you read a book by Marquis de Sade, you don't worry about his lack of morals for which he was imprisoned – we have to re-qualify the dimensions of this affair."

He added: "The bloggers who freely attack Polanski on websites don't know who he is or what they are talking about."

Bitter commentary

Two films were shown, followed by a debate with members of the audience.

The first was Le Gros et le Maigre (The Fat and the Lean), a little-known silent short by Polanski from 1961, and then A King in New York by Charlie Chaplin from 1957.

"If we'd chosen two long Polanski films, people would have taken it more symbolically," Maire said. "By showing Rosemary's Baby, some people might have said Polanski was the son of Satan, or by showing The Pianist, we could have been accused of trying to get people to shed a tear over his fate."

The choice of the two films was significant, however.

The situation depicted in the Waiting for Godot-esque short film can be seen as a bitterly ironic commentary on Polanski's legal troubles. The ending of the film, when the bullying master angrily chases after his slave (Polanski) who is fleeing towards Paris, seems especially poignant.

A King in New York presents a satirical view of certain aspects of US politics and society, taking a bitter swipe at media harassment and the plight of the main character (Chaplin), who is accused of being a Communist and has to face a McCarthy hearing.

"There are lots of parallels between Chaplin's film and what's happening today to Polanski in terms of the role of the media and the situation of the filmmaker," said Baier.

"The history of American cinema has been punctuated by the persecution of certain filmmakers for their sexual appetites, like Fatty Arbuckle, or for political reasons, like Charlie Chaplin," Maire added.

"Moralistic period"

There was a consensus that now Polanski was detained in Switzerland and likely to be extradited to the US, he should face the music. But doubt was still cast on the fairness of the trial and related events over 30 years ago.

"There was a kind of witch-hunt surrounding Polanski's trial in the US, which was not a fair one, and which caused him to flee," Maire said.

"We are in a very moralistic period in which we forget to put into context what happened in the 1970s," said Baier.

"I don't want to lessen the crime, but Polanski did not plead guilty to rape but unlawful sex with a minor, which is not the same. We now talk about rape and paedophilia with words that take on different connotations."

Those in attendance also took swipes at the intervention by the Swiss authorities.

"I think the Swiss did everything correctly – it [Switzerland] always does," Baier said. "You can't reproach the Swiss government for anything as it only did its job. But as the French writer Beaumarchais said, 'laws are linked to humanity in the way they are applied'."

"In 20 years people will look back on the Polanski affair and remember that Switzerland brought an end to his life and career to please the US authorities," one member of the audience told swissinfo.ch.

Maire also questioned the "strange" and "clumsy" arrest of Polanski at the Zurich film festival on September 26, which in his view was sure to have a "very negative" impact on outside views of Swiss culture.

"It obviously gives a very uncultured image of Switzerland, which has little consideration for artists," he told swissinfo.ch.

Simon Bradley in Lausanne, swissinfo.ch

Polanski case

The Swiss Criminal Court in Bellinzona said on Tuesday that film director Roman Polanski had filed a new bail appeal to be released from prison.

The confirmation came a day after the filmmaker's French lawyer said the filing included "adequate guarantees", including cash, that he would not flee justice if released.

Polanski is appealing against a decision last week by the Swiss justice ministry to reject bail because of his flight risk, since he spent over 30 years as a fugitive from United States justice.

Polanski was arrested on September 26 as he arrived in Zurich to be honoured at the city's film festival. He is wanted in the US for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 in Los Angeles.

Polanski, who has a holiday home in the Swiss resort of Gstaad, fled the US before sentencing. A court in California is to discuss the Polanski case on December 10.

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Roman Polanski

Born Raymond Polanski to Polish-Jewish parents on August 18, 1933, he spent the first three years of his life in Paris before the family returned to Poland.

He escaped from the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1940 as the Germans sealed it off. His mother later died in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

His first full-length feature film after graduation, Knife in the Water, won a number of awards.

In 1969, Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and six others were brutally murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.

Polanski won a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 as well as the Cannes film festival's coveted Palme d'Or for the same film the year before.

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