(Credit: Alamy)

The story of Roman Polanski's infamous escape from a sexual abuse prison sentence

My films are the expression of momentary desires. I follow my instincts, but in a disciplined way.
– Roman Polanski

Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski’s legacy is a deeply problematic one. Despite producing cinematic gems like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, Polanski is now mostly known for his status as a fugitive from the US criminal justice system. He was charged with sexually abusing a minor almost 45 years ago, but Polanski has directed around 15 pieces since then, with many of them receiving multiple awards and nominations. Why is Polanski still being allowed to make films and how come he hasn’t been arrested yet? This is where things get complicated.

Polanski started his dangerous descent into depravity after the infamous and brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn son. In August of 1969, cult members of the Manson family attacked the eight-month pregnant actress and stabbed her as well as her friends around 100 times. Polanski was never the same, indulging in extensive drug abuse to cope with the trauma. While he worked as the guest editor of the French edition of Vogue in 1977, the established filmmaker (who was 43 at the time) is alleged to have taken advantage of a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey (now Geimer). Under the ruse of conducting photoshoots and making her a star model, Polanski took her to Jack Nicholson’s legendary Hollywood party house. He himself admitted to the basic details of the incident in his autobiography titled Roman by Polanski, clarifying the conspiracy theories surrounding the crime. On the second day of the sham photoshoot, Polanski incapacitated the minor with champagne and half a Quaalude before sexually violating her multiple times.

He was arrested the next day and charged with six counts of criminal offences. Even though he initially pleaded not guilty to all six charges, he ultimately relented after striking a plea deal with Geimer’s attorney and pleaded guilty to the charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor”. He was sentenced to 90 days of evaluation at a psychiatric facility. However, when Polanski’s attorney told him that the judge was determined to see him rot in prison for 50 years, the director made up his mind to become a fugitive. After serving 42 days in prison, Polanski got on a flight to London and fled the country right before his final sentencing. Within a few hours, he travelled from London to France and has lived there ever since. Since he is a French citizen, and the US courts never completed his sentencing, Polanski cannot be extradited from the country even though Interpol has issued a red notice regarding him. He has lived the life of a criminal and has avoided travelling to countries where it is possible for him to be extradited back to the US. Polanski defended his utterly despicable actions in a controversial 1979 interview where he said:

If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But…fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!”

To further problematise Polanski’s troubling case, this wasn’t the first time he had done something like this. After Tate’s tragic death, it is alleged that he slept with multiple schoolgirls ranging from 16 to 19 in age – something that the director described in his autobiography. No matter how he puts it, it was statutory rape, and Polanski did the very same a year before the incident at Nicholson’s house. In a 1994 interview, Polanski confirmed a sexual relationship Nastassja Kinski when he said: “She was young and we had a love affair.” Kinski, at the time of this alleged affair, is said to have been just 15-years-old and Polanski continued to pursue a physical relationship even after knowing her age. Polanski does not see his paedophilia as a problem and considers being attracted to “young girls” as a natural thing which is indicative of a much bigger issue. 

Despite the allegations and crimes against him, Polanksi has continued to make several big budget films with big names like Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Pierce Brosnan (among others) agreeing to work with him. In 2009, an astonishingly large number of leading figures in the film industry signed a petition calling for his release including David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai and Woody Allen. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even Harvey Weinstein came to his defence. All of this was a reaction to Polanski’s 2008 arrest at Zurich airport which was futile because he was released in 2010 anyway.

Many have argued that statutory rape would have resulted in three years in state prison (at the time) and, by that logic, Polanski has already served his sentence. If he had committed the same crime today, the sentence would have been severely harsher, but his defenders insist that he should be judged on previous legal standards even though those standards are outrageously outdated and inadequate. His filmmaker colleagues, like Quentin Tarantino, have tried to dismiss the gravity of his crimes. In a 2003 interview with Howard Stern, Tarantino said: “He didn’t rape a 13-year-old. It was statutory rape. That’s not quite the same thing… He had sex with a minor, all right. That’s not rape. To me, when you use the word rape, you’re talking about violent, throwing them down.” It took some time for Tarantino to realise how wrong he was. He issued a public apology to Samantha Geimer in 2018, admitting that he “played devil’s advocate in the debate for the sake of being provocative.”

As for Geimer, she maintains that what Polanski did was very wrong. However, she stated that “I think he’s sorry, I think he knows it was wrong. I don’t think he’s a danger to society. I don’t think he needs to be locked up forever and no one has ever come out ever – besides me – and accused him of anything. It was 30 years ago now. It’s an unpleasant memory … (but) I can live with it.” People across the aisle have attacked her; Polanski fans have called her a “gold-digger” while others have accused her of wrongly forgiving Polanski for his transgressions. Protests broke out last year when it was announced that Polanski had won the 2020 Cesar Award for Best Director for his film An Officer and a Spy. Unable to separate the art from the artist, people forced the Cesar board to resign, and multiple celebrities like Adèle Haenel and Celine Sciamma walked out of the award show in solidarity with the protests. Geimer defended Polanski and criticised the protestors for being “very opportunistic”. 

In what is a deeply troubling, problematic and disturbing case, Polanski maintains:

I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case.”