The Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski was arrested on Saturday night in Zurich by Swiss officials on a U.S. arrest warrant for a crime he committed more than 30 years ago. In 1978 French-born Polanski fled the U.S. on the eve of his sentencing after he admitted to statutory rape charges involving a 13-year-old girl. Polanski fled because he believed that Laurence J. Rittenband, the Los Angeles judge who was was presiding over the case, was going to back out of the plea deal that Polanski’s lawyers had made for him. The director hasn’t returned to the U.S. since he became a fugitive, although he has continued to make award-winning films that are well-received in the States. Polanski was in Zurich as part of the Zurich Film Festival where he was expected to be given a prestigious achievement award.
Polanski’s arrest re-opens the case against the esteemed director. Last year, a documentary (Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired) came out that focused on the life of Roman Polanski and his fugitive status. Some critics felt that the film was too flattering to Polanski and quickly glossed over the acts he committed against the 13-year-old girl (which included anal penetration, giving her drugs and her testimony that she resisted and asked him to stop) and his rumored deep interest in girls in their early teens. (Rumors of the middle-aged Polanski courting underage girls in the ’70s have always floated around Hollywood.) After the documentary came out, Polanski and his lawyers tried to get his nearly 30-year-old case dismissed, sighting new evidence that came out in the documentary as proof of legal wrongdoings; however, they didn’t want to follow the Los Angeles judge’s statement that if Polanksi (or really any fugitive) wanted to challenge his case he would have to do so by coming back to the United States and turning himself in.
Polanski’s arrest has stirred up mixed reactions in the media. On the one hand, Polanski is a talented director who is well respected in the film community. He has also had a hard life: he escaped the Holocaust and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered in their Bel Air home by the Manson family in 1969. Defense of Polanski that has cited these facts has either assumed that geniuses should be allowed to commit unlawful acts because they are special members of our society (the famous people defense) and/or that people who have endured hardships should be excused from the law. Regardless of the defense, the acts that Polanski committed against a very young girl are never excused, Polanski is just given special treatment in this particular case. These excuses are assuming that the sexual well-being and safety of a young woman–not to mention the laws that are put in place to protect her–are hogwash when compared to the wants of a “Great Man.” It sends a clear message to young women that they are the lowest rung on the power ladder, no matter how hurt or disgusting or unlawful the act that has been committed against them was. Does this kind of reasoning send a message to young, powerless women that they should pipe down and accept it when a more powerful man assaults them?
Polanski’s case is contentious. Some people–like me–are mixed up about their artistic admiration for Polanski and their personal revulsion at what he did to a young girl (and possibly more young girls). Does liking Polanski’s movies mean you are in some way approving of what he did? There is also the much-touted fact that the 13-year-old girl involved in the case–now 45–has come forward and asked for the charges to be dropped against Polanski since she has already forgiven him and re-opening the details of the case would cause understandable emotional damage to her family. (The woman brought a civil case against Polanski and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum–so perhaps in her mind justice has been served.) Should we respect the wishes of the victim in a case like this?
Polanski’s lawyers say that they are going to fight the extradition, although it appears that if he did return to the U.S. he might get his charges dropped. Since the ’90s he has attempted to work out several deals with the Los Angeles court system, only to drop the deal later for sometimes silly reasons (in 1997 he objected to having his court appearance televised). Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza, the judge currently overseeing the case and the judge who told Polanski he would have to return to the U.S. if he wanted his case dismissed, has said that Polanski has a strong case for dismissal, he just has to go about asking for it by the ways set forward by the law, not the ways he imagine would be appropriate.
Some of the reaction to Polanski’s arrest has been a little comical. The French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said that “there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has shown its face.” The French! What, did they not know that Polanski was wanted in the U.S.? Do they believe that bending laws meant to protect young men and women should be bended according to each famous person’s needs? Robert Harris, a British novelist and friend of Polanski has said that Polanski’s arrest was “politically motivated” (without elaborating on what exactly are the politics behind the arrest of a Polish-French film director who makes mainstream movies that are well-received in Hollywood) and that he is “shocked” that a 76-year-old man would be “treated in such a fashion.” I’m shocked that he is shocked. Was Polanski beaten in prison and this hasn’t made the news yet? Ever since his arrest, Polanski has been given special treatment by the authorities: plea deals were arranged, he was allowed to leave the country while facing trial and sentencing and the court has been open to working out new deals with him granted that he returns to the United States. These defenses of Polanski fit back into the “Great Men should be treated differently” mindset, which is damaging to both a stable democracy and those many, many, many people who aren’t “Great Men” (or women).