On Sharon’s murder, the teen rape, and life since – Polanski speaks out

Geoffrey Macnab reports on a new film that will show the troubled director in a remarkable new light

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The day that actress Sharon Tate was murdered in Los Angeles, producer Andrew Braunsberg was in London with Tate's husband, the film-maker Roman Polanski, working on a screenplay for a new film.

"I took the call," Braunsberg (whose documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir screens in Cannes this month) tells me. "Most bad news comes by telephone... it just does. To this day, I am not so keen on picking up telephones!" Braunsberg (the producer of Polanski's Macbeth and the Oscar-winning Peter Sellers film Being There) paints an apocalyptic picture of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the killing of Tate, who was nearly nine months pregnant. He travelled to LA the next day with Polanski. Together with Gene Gutowski (Polanski's former producer) and UK Playboy boss Victor Lownes, Braunsberg identified Tate's body and organised Tate's funeral.

"We were living at the Paramount lot because no hotel would have us. The fear factor you cannot imagine! Nobody who wasn't there can imagine the degree of paranoia. You know how it is in California – they are very hysterical. Everybody was thinking, 'we're next'... people were very frightened. At the funeral, I noticed Steve McQueen had a gun." Before "Manson Family" members were convicted, the police suspected that the killer might come from Polanski's circle. This heightened the sense of unease and suspicion yet further.

"The root of people's suspicion and dislike of Roman is [from] when his wife was murdered. Literally, he was blamed for the murder of his wife," Braunsberg suggests. In the public mind, Braunsberg believes, Polanski became so closely identified with his 1968 horror film Rosemary's Baby that he was regarded as guilty by association. The rape case in 1977 and Polanski's re-arrest in 2009 underlined how those suspicions had lingered.

In Cannes this month, the media will again be pointing its gaze at Polanski. Not only is Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir screening, but a restored version of his Oscar-winning 1979 Thomas Hardy adaptation Tess is also showing. Polanski and the film's star, Nastassja Kinski, will both be in attendance.

The documentary is likely to challenge many people's preconceptions about its subject. In it, Polanski talks to Braunsberg (a friend he has known since 1964) about his childhood in the Warsaw ghetto, how his mother was taken to Auschwitz ("they came for my sister but my sister wasn't there – so they took my mother instead of my sister"), the death of Tate and (inevitably) the rape charge. What is startling is how frankly Polanski opens up. The director, who rarely gives interviews, speaks immensely movingly about Tate's death, and how he has rebuilt his life in France with his current partner, Emmanuelle Seigner. Polanski describes his time with Tate as, "a very happy period of my life which lasted, unfortunately, not very long". He calls her death "the greatest tragedy" in his life.

Braunsberg decided to make the documentary after Polanski was arrested en route to the Zurich Film Festival in September 2009. There was an initial wave of support for him from sympathetic film-makers, politicians and cultural commentators. This was then followed by a vicious backlash. Detractors queued up to hurl abuse at Polanski, pointing out that was guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The details of the court case, the erratic behaviour of the original judge, and the interests of his victim Samantha Geimer were all overlooked.

In prison in Switzerland, Polanski had joked to Braunsberg: "Andy, I've never had much time for myself and I am looking at this as my monastic retreat." After he was released and put under house arrest in Gstaad, Braunsberg visited him again. Braunsberg says: "They let him out just before Christmas. His children were there and his wife was there but they had to go back to Paris because the children had school... at their schools, they were pursued. You know how children are: 'Your father is the rapist.' Life was miserable and for no-one more so than Emmanuelle, who was pursued by the paparazzi relentlessly. It's a terrible feeling to see your children put in this terrible situation through no fault of their own but because of something that you had done 33 years before."

Braunsberg shot hours and hours of material. "There were extremely emotional moments when he [Polanski] was crying, I was crying and the cameraman [Pawel Edelman] was crying."

In the end, Braunsberg didn't know what to do with such footage. They called in documentary maker Laurent Bouzereau to create a 90-minute film out of the material.

Polanski's tone in the documentary is philosophical and, towards Geimer, apologetic. "I really feel sorry for what this event caused to her life, with her family, with the constant aggression of the paparazzis," he says, calling her a "double victim" (preyed on by both him and the press).

No doubt, these attempts at expiation won't satisfy his hardened critics. Others, though, are likely to be amazed at his stoicism in the face of so much tragedy and upheaval.