Play it again, Roman

Roman Polanski won acclaim for The Pianist. But, asks Ryan Gilbey, why has no one spotted that he had made the movie before?
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The Independent Culture

It's well known Roman Polanski spent many decades wrestling with the idea of making a film that touched on his childhood experiences in the Cracow ghetto. As late as 1990, he even turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to direct Schindler's List because the material was still too raw. Finally he confronted his pain on film, and refracted it through the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. It's a magnificent picture. But what has been overlooked is that he had already made the film in 1976, only then it was called The Tenant.

It's well known Roman Polanski spent many decades wrestling with the idea of making a film that touched on his childhood experiences in the Cracow ghetto. As late as 1990, he even turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to direct Schindler's List because the material was still too raw. Finally he confronted his pain on film, and refracted it through the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. It's a magnificent picture. But what has been overlooked is that he had already made the film in 1976, only then it was called The Tenant.

It is also about a timid Polish Jew holed up in a strange apartment where he must cling to his identity - and his life but whereas The Pianist met with reverent acclaim, The Tenant attracted only mockery. Polanski's masterstroke was to cast himself in the lead role. He had already directed himself in Chinatown where he played a malevolent goblin who slits open Jack Nicholson's nostril. But as Trelkowski in The Tenant, he wallows in his own helplessness. He is always sharing the frame with performers who emphasise his Lilliputian slightness, such as the galumphing Shelley Winters, or a frumped-down Isabelle Adjani, who lopes through her scenes like a giraffe. He doesn't resemble a man so much as a child dressing up in his father's clothes.

The film is ostensibly about Trelkowski's nervous breakdown in his Parisian flat, as he becomes possessed by the spirit of the apartment's previous tenant. But he has problems long before the heebie-jeebies take hold. He can't make up his mind what to order in a café. He allows a vagrant to rifle through his wallet. He steps in dog shit during a hot date with Adjani, then takes her to see Enter The Dragon, (which would make the mightiest man look puny). The most frightening thing about both The Tenant and The Pianist is that its characters seem to invite their own victimisation by virtue of their passivity.

Trelkowski - like Szpilman - is an unassuming man of whom it is easy to take advantage and in the racist hysteria of his neighbours, Polanski delivers scathing anthropological insights as he's been doing since his 1958 short film Two Men and a Wardrobe.

Written by Roland Topor, The Tenant gave Polanski an opportunity (as did The Pianist) to attempt autobiography from behind the discreet screen of adaptation. Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the novel in the middle of the Seventies and Polanski asked to direct it. His long-time collaborator Gérard Brach co-wrote the script. Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, conjured a sleepy Paris of tombstone greys, occasionally startling the eye by making the mouth of a subway look like the portal to another dimension. Pierre Guffroy, who had worked with Buñuel, designed the majestically crummy apartment building in which the majority of the action takes place. Jacques Audiard, later an accomplished director in his own right was assistant editor. Philippe Sarde contributed a menacing score lightened by unexpected comic cadences. His brother Alain, the film's associate producer, took a creepy cameo role as a back-row voyeur who ogles courting couples.

Expectations were running high after the success of Chinatown, and The Tenant had been invited to Cannes sight unseen. Overnight, though, its prospects dwindled. Polanski puts that down to a sneak from L'Express, who filed an early demolition job on the movie. "I was mobbed," he later explained, "but not in a pleasant way. I felt like a caged animal being prodded with sticks by curious visitors to a zoo," - words worth remembering when you watch the harrowing climax of The Tenant, in which Trelkowski's neighbours gather noisily on the forecourt to encourage him to jump to his death.

Polanski has since argued that The Tenant treated its audience unfairly by switching mood but I think he's wrong. Yes, it has its wayward touches, but the lurch into horror is never complete. Even as Trelkowski is parading around in stockings, wigs and a few inches of blue eyeshadow, hurling himself out of a window for the second time in five minutes, you don't know whether to laugh or wince.

It is also astonishing, in this age of complex special effects, that the most effective moments in The Tenant were created in front of the camera, rather than in a post-production facility. The scene in which a feverish Trelkowski reaches from his sick-bed for a bottle of water, only to find that he cannot pick it up because it is only a photograph, gets a gasp out of me each time I see it. Then there are the weird dimensions of the flat, which make it appear that Trelkowski is shrinking. Polanski once explained to me how this was done but after he drew the diagram he spilt his coffee all over it.

The Tenant deserves to be regarded as more than a camp chiller. See it, if you can, before or after watching The Pianist, and you will be struck by the way in which the imagery of one picture bleeds into the other. Is it The Pianist or The Tenant that shows a tooth embedded in a wall, a macabre dance between mismatched couples, a mouth agape in a scream that seems to anticipate extinction, or a child being pulled under a wall in a terrible game of tug-of-war? Spot the difference.

'The Tenant' is showing on 20 and 24 April and 'The Pianist' on 28, 29 and 30 April as part of the Polanski season at the NFT (020-7928 3232)

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