Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Polanski, Roman (1933-)

Director, Actor, Writer

Main image of Polanski, Roman (1933-)

Roman Polanski has enjoyed a successful if controversial career in the cinema over almost forty years, directing in various countries including Poland, Britain, America, France and Italy. While highly diverse, his films are usually set in restricted spaces and involve small groups of characters, often alienated from modern society. The world he evokes is unstable, marked by sudden and shocking tendencies towards violence.

Polanski was born Roman Liebling in Paris on 18 August 1933. Two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the family returned to Poland. His mother died in the Auschwitz concentration camp; Roman and his father survived and were reunited in 1945. Adopting the surname Polanski, he acted in Polish films, most notably as one of the youths organising resistance to the Nazis in Andrzej Wajda's A Generation (Pokolenie, Poland, 1955), before studying at the Lodz Film School. Numerous short films, including Two Men and a Wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafa, Poland, 1958), were followed by a taut, minimalist thriller, Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, Poland, 1962), which gained an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, but was denounced by the Communist regime for its negative portrayal of Polish life.

Polanski departed for France, where he teamed up with the writer Gérard Brach. The Polish producer Eugene Gutowski, who had established himself in London, invited them to work with him at the adventurous exploitation film company Compton Film Productions. Brach's script for Cul-de-Sac was initially considered too uncommercial, and Repulsion was quickly written as an alternative. A tense psychodrama about a woman both attracted and repulsed by sexuality, Repulsion achieved the perfect art/exploitation balance - scary effects, graphic violence, a claustrophobic air of soured sexuality, placed within a moving and psychologically convincing story. Barely handicapped by his limited grasp of the English language - the film's dialogue is regularly subsumed under action and atmosphere - Polanski secures a tour de force performance from Catherine Deneuve as the young woman who retreats into defensive, psychotic madness.

The film's success encouraged Compton to go ahead with Cul-de-Sac, a Pinteresque drama that offered few of the thrills that had attracted audiences to Repulsion. The action takes place in an isolated castle where two criminals (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) hold an eccentric husband (Donald Pleasance) and his wife (Françoise Dorléac) hostage. The interplay between the characters, the shifting power balance, the threat of violence mixed with absurd comedy make the film unique. Dance of the Vampires, Polanski's third British film, was ostensibly more conventional, a comedy-horror film made in colour for MGM-British, but this was partly because MGM insisted on re-cutting and shortening the film. Enough of Polanski's macabre vision survives to make it at least an interesting curiosity.

Polanski then moved to Hollywood, where he was able to retain much tighter control over Rosemary's Baby (US, 1968), an adaptation of Ira Levin's novel about demonic possession. The film was a huge success and would have secured Polanski's career as a coveted Hollywood director. But in 1969 his wife Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson and his acolytes. Polanski came back to Britain to make Macbeth (1971), a violent, bloody version of Shakespeare's play that many critics read as reflecting Polanski's personal life.

After a sojourn in Europe, Polanski returned to Hollywood to direct Chinatown (US, 1974), a stylish film noir that repeated the critical and box-office success of Rosemary's Baby. However, his career was disrupted once again when he was accused of having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. He fled America and pursued an erratic career in Europe.

Most of the best films he made subsequently have had some British involvement. Tess (France/UK, 1979), his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, treats Hardy's story with respect and makes superb use of the English landscape; Bitter Moon (France/UK, 1992), for all its threatened lurches into the ridiculous, presents an intriguing study of the Englishman's fascination with esoteric sexuality; Death and the Maiden (UK/US/France, 1995) offers a convincing and powerful version of Ariel Dorfman's play about the relationship between a torturer and his victim. The Pianist (France/Poland/Germany/UK/US, 2002), which re-united Polanski with Gutowski, is an unflinchingly brave study of a man's will to survive among the horrors of Nazi-occupied Warsaw; the film won the Oscar for Best Director in 2002. Oliver Twist (UK/France/Czech Republic, 2005), filmed in Prague, but notable for the detailed grime and decrepitude of its settings, connects Oliver's deprived childhood and the brutality of the workhouse with Polanski's own grim past and dour outlook on life. Though there have been times when Polanski's career seemed in terminal decline, he has proved himself across the decades as the consummate survivor and a major international director.

Butler, Ivan, The Cinema of Roman Polanski (New York/London: A.S.Barnes/A.Zwemmer, 1970)
Goulding, Daniel J (ed.), Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman, Polanski, Szabo, Makavejev (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994)
Leaming, Barbara, Polanski: His Life and His Films (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982)
Parker, John, Roman Polanski (London: Victor Gollancz, 1993)
Polanski, Roman, Roman (London: Heinemann, 1984)

Jamie Sexton, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cul-de-Sac (1966)Cul-de-Sac (1966)

Roman Polanski's black comedy about a couple terrorised by gangsters

Thumbnail image of Repulsion (1965)Repulsion (1965)

Terrifying psychological thriller about a mentally disturbed young woman

Related collections

Related people and organisations