Polanski arrested as he steps off plane at Swiss airport

Disbelief after director held on warrant issued by American court 31 years ago

Roman Polanski had headed to Switzerland expecting to be feted with a retrospective of his distinguished career at the Zurich Film Festival, only to find himself arrested on a 31-year-old warrant as he arrived at the capital's airport.

This has been the fate hanging over the Oscar-winning director of Chinatown and The Pianist since that day in 1977 when he had sex with a 13-year-old girl he was photographing for the French edition of Vogue.

There was a mood of disbelief in Zurich's Corso Cinema yesterday morning as the news broke. Young film-makers and invited guests had gathered for a masterclass with the 76-year-old Polanski. Footage of The Pianist was screening silently as they filed into the cinema, and the atmosphere was initially one of fervent anticipation for they had been promised that they would be allowed to ask whatever questions they chose to one of the sacred monsters of world cinema.

Then at 11am the audience was told that the event had been cancelled because the director had been arrested on Saturday night. "He [Polanski] was allowed to make two calls," a festival spokesperson told the stunned room. "He called his wife and he called us."

It remained unclear last night, why this visit had triggered the interest of the Swiss authorities. The director had often travelled to the Alpine nation, to ski last winter and to attend a polo tournament. Guido Balmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Justice ministry would only say that Mr Polanski had been taken into custody because "there was a valid arrest warrant and we knew when he was coming".

The director has lived in France for the past three decades, since fleeing the US in 1978. French Culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand said he was "stunned" to hear about the arrest, adding that he "profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life".

Polanski, born to parents of Polish and Jewish backgrounds in 1933, has shown his survival instincts again and again. As is well-chronicled, when the Germans sealed off the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1940, his father shouted to Roman to run and he escaped, to be sheltered by locals. His mother died in an Auschwitz gas chamber, but her son Roman survived the war.

In 1969, his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson cult when she was eight months pregnant. The film-maker became the focus of a media witch-hunt; the fact that he had made satanic horror film Rosemary's Baby a year before his wife's murder counted against him. Then in 1977 came the statutory rape of the 13-year-old Samantha Gailey.

He was charged with plying her with drugs and champagne and having unlawful sex with her at Jack Nicholson's Hollywood home. He maintained the teenager was sexually experienced and had consented. After 42 days in prison having psychiatric tests, he fled to Europe before he was sentenced.

Ms Gailey, now Mrs Geimer, has since publicly forgiven him and joined his bid for the charges to be dismissed, saying she wants the case to be over. But that plea has fallen on deaf ears with the US authorities, who are now expected to make a formal extradition request to the Swiss.

Mr Polanski's lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told French radio that his client would be appealing his detention. "We are going to try to lift the arrest warrant in Zurich... the (extradition) convention between Switzerland and the United States is not very clear," he said.

Instead of getting Polanski in person yesterday, those who chose to remain in the Corso auditorium were treated to a screening of Marina Zenovich's provocative documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. It was grimly appropriate viewing. The film deals at great length with the circumstances surrounding Polanski's sexual encounter with 13-year-old Samantha.

The organisers of the film festival said they would go ahead with the retrospective, although they would obviously not be able to present the director with a prize for his life's work as planned.

An added layer of irony to the arrest, is that Polanski is in post-production on his new film, The Ghost – an adaptation of the Robert Harris novel about a British politician who has been accused of war crimes. This fictional politician, like Polanski himself, is confronted with the prospect that he might have to answer for past misdeeds in a courtroom.

Polanski once demanded of an interviewer: "Do you think there is anything more to my life than my relationship with young women?" This weekend's arrest suggests that in spite of his huge achievements as a film-maker and artist, the answer to this question as far as the US judicial system is concerned is still a resounding "No".

Tragedy and triumph: Polanski's life

*1933 Polanski born in Paris to a Polish-Jewish father and a Russian mother of Jewish extraction. The family moved back to Poland when he was three.

*1940 He escapes the Jewish ghetto in Krakow after being told to run by his father. His father survives, but his mother dies in Auschwitz.

*1963 His first full-length film, Knife in the Water, is nominated for best foreign-language film at the Oscars.

*1969: Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, is hacked to death by cult followers of Charles Manson.

*1974: Thriller Chinatown enjoys major Hollywood success.

*1977: The director has sex with a 13-year-old girl during a Hollywood photo shoot for Vogue.

*1978: Awaiting sentencing on a charge of statutory rape, he flees to Europe.

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