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Polanski arrest shocks his Swiss neighbours

Roman Polanski's arrest has shocked and disappointed many in Switzerland, particularly in Gstaad, where the Oscar-winning director has holidayed for years.

This content was published on September 30, 2009 - 13:55

Well after he became a fugitive, the French-Polish filmmaker would come to the upmarket resort town to ski and live what locals say was largely a normal life.

He hit the slopes with friends Jack Nicholson and Gunter Sachs. He mingled with townsfolk and eventually bought a modest chalet there.

"He was always a very friendly man, very charming," Kerstin Sonnekalb, public relations manager for Gstaad-Saanenland tourism told swissinfo.ch. "Prominent people are just here, and we respect that."

So hallowed is the private sphere here high in the Bernese Oberland that few seem to have known that the French-Polish director was still a wanted man from a 1977 child-sex case, she said.

Indeed, the vice president of the local municipality, Toni von Grünigen, said officials there had no idea. Gstaad has no police force, just a few traffic cops. Even the Bern cantonal police were only "passively" aware that Polanski, 76, had a warrant out for his arrest.

Polanski featured in a national database listing people wanted abroad for crimes, but his name was one of thousands. Stefan von Below, a cantonal police spokesman said officers do not "actively hunt" down people unless they know exactly when and where that person will be.

So until someone tipped off Swiss authorities that the director would be landing at Zurich airport on September 26 en route to a festival honouring his work, Polanski was largely free to lay Swiss roots. After four decades, they'd grown deep.

Holidays in Switzerland

Franz Wehren still has the old wooden skis Polanski gave him after filming Dracula in the 1970s. He says the filmmaker is "nice with a good sense of humour".

He last spoke to Polanski two weeks ago, when the director told him he would be heading to the Zurich Film Festival to accept a lifetime achievement award. Wehren said he's "disgusted" Swiss authorities decided to arrest him then.

"He's been coming to Gstaad for more than 40 years, since before he came back from the States," Wehren said in a phone interview. "People love him in Gstaad. It would be shocking if he couldn't come back."

In 1975 Polanski skied in Gstaad with actor friend Jack Nicholson. Two years later, Polanski would plead guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in Nicholson's home in the Hollywood Hills while the actor was away. Polanski fled to France in 1978 shortly before being sentenced for the crime.

Polanski used to vacation in Austria but it was too far from his home in Paris. So he came instead to Gstaad, which sits in a wide, sunny valley. There he could find 250km of ski slopes, 300km of hiking trails, golf courses and a modicum of anonymity.

Wehren was managing the Golf Hotel in Gstaad in 1978 and met the director, then on the run, a year later. Polanski stayed at the hotel and rented chalets. The two became friends.

"He's a very good skier, very athletic," said Wehren, who now runs the Auberge d'Hermance near Geneva. As recently as 2008 Polanski could be seen skiing the Gstaad slopes in a garish blue, white and red Spyder ski suit.

Will he come back?

Gstaad became something of a second home for Polanski, and in 1994 he held the world premiere of Death and the Maiden at a film festival there.

A few years ago he bought a chalet on the outskirts of town. Pictures show a classic design—wood balconies, large eaves and a steep roof to shed the 1,143cm of annual snowfall. Wehren says it is modest inside with a mix of antiques and personal items.

"It's not one of these mega villas you find," he says. "It doesn't have the greatest view, it's not a luxury chalet. He's very discreet."

Even buying property did not give law enforcement officials specific data on Polanski's whereabouts, spokesman von Below said.

"He could be here for months and the authorities wouldn't know it," he said. "There are no reports on what prominent people are doing in the Bernese Oberland. That's why it's wrong to say, 'Well, you knew he was there, why didn't you pick him up?'"

Formal passport checks along the Franco-Swiss border ceased when Switzerland joined the Schengen area in 2008. Until then, passport controls were done randomly or when the circumstances were suspicious.

Gstaad tourism's Sonnekalb says the town hasn't suffered because of the arrest and believes Polanski will still have plenty of reasons to come back – assuming he beats the full 50-year sentence he's facing.

"Here you can have your privacy," she said. "It's a very good place to relax."

Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch

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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1977 case

Polanski's arrest in Zurich was prompted by a request from the United States Marshals Southwest Regional Fugitive Task Force,
which includes the Los Angeles Police Department.

The US warrant is linked to Polanski's arrest in the late 1970s when he was charged with giving drugs and alcohol to a 13-year-old girl and having unlawful sex with her at a photo session at Jack Nicholson's Hollywood home.

Polanski maintained the girl was sexually experienced and had consented. He spent 42 days in prison undergoing psychiatric tests but fled the country before being sentenced.

He recently sought dismissal of his case on the grounds of misconduct by the now-deceased judge who had arranged a plea bargain and then planned to renege on it.

Earlier this year the woman involved also filed to have the charges dismissed.

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