Roman Polanski, after thirty years of thumbing his nose at justice, was arrested by the Swiss police while on his way to collect a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Roman Polanski has been to Switzerland several times before, with no adverse consequences. But that was before the IRS got crosswise with Swiss bank secrecy laws, before the US government told UBS that it could disclose American private banking clients or it could stop doing buiness in the United States, but it could not do both.
The Swiss saw the sleeping giant few nations lose sleep over any more. The Swiss state cannot afford to have its banking industry shut out of the American market, and in the face of that opposition went to the rope-a-dope: agree to disclose names, after a long period of examination, after hearings, after enough time has passed that everyone can forget.
The Swiss were eager to prove their goodwill and cooperation, and the opportunity to bag a famous fugitive was pretty tempting. Put Polanski on a plane to LA and it will be tough for some future NY Attorney General to insist the Swiss are uncooperative – why, look what we did for you. Turning over tax evaders scares the entire world of rich people hiding from the IRS; turning over Roman Polanski scares California rapists, most of whom would never assume Switzerland to be a safe haven in the first place.
Ever since his 1978 flight, Polanski has benefitted from Hollywood’s unbelievable willingness to overlook sexual violence. If Polanski had, for example, participated in a racially motivated assault outside a bar, no one would have worked with him. As it happened, in 1988, not ten years later, he was able to make Frantic.
It’s a bit hard to comprehend. Warner Bros. – a public company based in the very same county as Polanski had committed his rape, the very same county Polanski fled to avoid prosecution – sent a check to a fugitive. They did business with a known felon who was actively avoiding arrest, and no one found this objectionable. Harrison Ford agreed to star in the movie, and his agent did not tell him “you cannot seriously consider working for a rapist.” The French government closed streets, craft services fed him, camera operators and lighting techs and the entire village of the film industry actually worked for him, and no one thought anything of it. In 2002, he won the Best Director Academy Award for the Pianist. Harrison Ford accepted the award for him.
Even more amazingly, in 2005 Polanski sued Vanity Fair in an English court, winning £50,000 in damages for libel for the accusation that he had propositioned a Norwegian model on his way to Sharon Tate’s funeral. The fact that Polanski did not bother to show up out of fear the UK would extradite him didn’t seem to bother the court. I suppose if Time accused Mullah Omar of improper advances he could as easily have testified from a cave.
The most astonishing part of the weekend’s events has been the fact that some people have actually tried to defend him.
French culture minister Frederic Mitterand:
Mr Mitterrand’s office said the culture minister “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them”
Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski:
I am considering approaching the American authorities over the possibility of the U.S. president proclaiming an act of clemency, which would settle the matter once and for all
Washington Post writer Anne Applebaum, who wrote Gulag and really should know better (and is also Sikorsky’s wife, which she does not feel compelled to mention):
Polanski, who panicked and fled the U.S. during that trial, has been pursued by this case for 30 years, during which time he has never returned to America, has never returned to the United Kingdom, has avoided many other countries, and has never been convicted of anything else. He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.
Let’s take that apart, because it seems to encapsulate all of the arguments in support of Polanski.
First of all, the panic. Suppose Polanski did panic and inadvertently flee the country – that was thirty years ago. For every one of the past eleven thousand and change days, Polanski could have gotten on a plane from Paris to Los Angeles and surrendered at LAX. No, for every one of these days he has decided that he preferred being a free man in France to a prisoner of the California penal system. He has stolen those thirty years of freedom.
The notoriety and legal fees and inability to collect an award are the price of flight – and a pretty small price, all things considered. I am sure every single rapist in a California jail would take wealth and fame in Paris for the cost of never setting eyes on Los Angeles again.
The argument that he never committed another crime is particularly rich. The sentencing guideline for a first offense of rape is not “nothing.” You can go to jail for your first robbery, your first murder, and yes, your first rape. That’s important. And it’s even more important that whether or not you think the case is turning out well for you, you do not have the right to unilaterally skip town; you don’t get to acquit yourself.
Applebaum cites Polanski’s experience with the Holocaust, and adds “If he weren’t famous, I bet no one would bother with him at all.” That’s an interesting juxtaposition. Ever since 1945, the Wiesenthal Center and other have been chasing Nazis. Initially, of course, the chased the main architects, but at this point the few survivors are ancient men with unreliable memories whose roles were likely tangential; they were awfully young in the early 1940s. Still, it is important for society to make the claim that it will not allow a comfortable flight. You are not entitled to spend your twilight years in the comfort of the Paraguayan night, much less married to a French movie star. The dogs never stop the hunt, and if they look primarily at the most famous, well, that’s the way we prioritize all of our prosecutions.
And before we forget the original crime, let’s bear in mind that the word “statutory” was only included to dilute the charge in the plea bargain; it’s a rather unnecessary qualifier to what happened to Samantha Gailey on February 13, 1977.
For far too long the US has taken a relaxed approach to fugitives, whether Alex Kelly or Samuel Sheinbein or Roman Polanski. Perhaps we will always have a big enough world that someone can go to ground in the Amazon or the Hindu Kush and never be found, but we can make it damn clear that you cannot run from our courts and eat dinner at Tallivent.
There are plenty of court battles to come, but here’s hoping Roman Polanski’s next movie has a Johnny Cash theme:
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner:
A man of such talent, recognized throughout the world, recognized especially in the country that arrests him — all this is not very pleasant.
What part of being a fugitive is supposed to be pleasant? Recognition is supposed to be a barrier to flight; that’s why we include pictures in WANTED posters. I trust that Osama bin Laden’s recognized face is not the sticking point in capturing him.
Whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time. A deal was made with the judge, and the deal is not being honoured.
Polanski went through the Holocaust and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family. How do you go from the Holocaust to the Manson family with any sort of dignity? In those circumstances, most people could not contribute to art and make the kind of beautiful movies he continues to make.
I’m not too shy to go and talk to the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and to ask him once and for all to look at this.
Charming, Harvey. It may be a surprise, but the prisons of California are full of people who have had lives of incredible suffering. They’re just not very good film directors, and they don’t make you a lot of money, so you don’t care about them. But don’t try to pretend the crime is “alleged” or anything else. Roman ran, and the proof of his flight exists in the very fact that we are having this conversation about someone who sits in a Swiss jail awaiting possible extradition. And let’s not run around talking about broken deals. An unapproved plea bargain is not a broken deal; it happens all the time. That does not magically confer some sort of Get Out of Jail Free card.
As for calling Schwarznegger, I suppose it is possible that Arnold would decide to end any hope of a future political career to do a favor for Harvey Weinstein, but I hope Meg Whitman and the rest of the California Republicans realize that without the law-and-order vote, they don’t have a prayer of winning the governorship. Take your chances…
The general belief seems to be that this is a case of prudish America unable to accept the social openness of liberal Europe, as though drugging a thirteen year-old and forcibly sodomizing her were the socially accepted thing to do on the Continent. Which is why I was somewhat surprised to read this:
In an online poll in the French daily Le Figaro, more than 70% of nearly 29,500 respondents said Polanski should face justice for his alleged crimes.
[I]n a snap poll by the Basler Zeitung newspaper, two-thirds of respondents said that Swiss authorities had done the right thing in arresting Polanski.
Maybe rape isn’t so cool in Europe either…
UPDATE OF UPDATE
I guess we now understand why Mr. Mitterand was so keen to defend a sex criminal:
In the excerpt published by Le Monde newspaper Thursday, Mitterrand talks about visiting clubs to choose young male prostitutes in Thailand — where prostitution is illegal and sexual intercourse with a minor is statutory rape and is punishable by imprisonment.
“Most of them are young, handsome, and apparently unaware of the devastation that their activities could bring them. I would learn later that they didn’t come every night, that they were often students, had a girlfriend and sometimes even lived with their families, who pretended not to know the source of their breadwinner’s earnings,” the book said.
“Some of them were older and there was also a small contingent of heavier bruisers, who also had their fans. It was the artistic side of the exposition: Their presence made the youthful charm of the others stand out.”