My top 5 directors (No.2) – Roman Polanski

2) Roman Polanski


Roman at work.
Roman at work.

Is difficult to categorize the work of Roman Polanski early in his career his movies were classified as independent art house films. He later transitioned into the realm of Horror and drama where he had enormous success. Saying that one thing has always been consistent with Roman Polanski themes of violence particularly abuse, madness and loss have been prevalent in all his work.

To fully understand his preference for such themes one must look at Romans past. Roman Polanski’s life like his movies have been larger than life. During the Nazi reign he and his family were taken in concentration camps where he was separated from his mother and father. He later came to understand his mother was brutally executed by the Nazi`s. He experienced his friend getting killed, and he had to move from home to home to avoid being taken in. The price you paid for being Jewish in Poland during 1936.

This is just the first part of his life. In 1969 his wife Sharon Tate was murdered at the hands of the Charles Manson family at their Hollywood home. In 1977 he had to leave America to avoid prosecution for indecent behavior with a 13-year-old girl. Much of his life experience has been expressed through his movies. Many movie critics have for this reason considered him to be a biographical director. This has contributed towards adding realism to his movies. He is as much an experimental director as he is a rebel. Known for his temper and total disregard for budgets and time constraints he has nonetheless created some of the most memorable movie experiences.

His unique style of camera technique and use of ambient, and often minimal lighting has helped create a style of picture which is instantly recognizable. Glamour and full lighting is definitely not his style. I will now give my reflection and thoughts on a few movies that perfectly encapsulate Polanski and his impact in the world of cinema. The order in which the movies are mentioned are in no way a reflection of preference. I will try my best to avoid any story mentions for the sake of spoilers and rather focus on the themes and techniques adopted by Polanski.

Knife in the water (1962), this was Polanski`s first full feature film. This movie is perhaps my favorite of all his work. There is a saying that good things sometimes arise out of keeping things simple. Polanski appears to have taken that saying and made it into a movie. The concept is simple yet the emotional issue in which it deals with is very complex. The movie focuses only on three characters an unhappy married couple and a hitchhiker whom they invite to a boating excursion.


A truly thought provoking movie experience.
A truly thought-provoking movie experience.

The movie deals with rivalry and sexual tension and the effects of such emotions on human psyche and the actions in which it often influences. This movie is the perfect introduction to Polanski`s work it deals with themes that he has constantly found himself visiting in his later movies. The production of the movie was fascinating. For one the actors were all inexperienced and had no previous acting experience. Secondly, the film was shot on water in a polish lake during the winter. Thirdly, the boat was big enough to fit the three actors but not big enough for the film crew making the whole process extremely difficult specifically for the camera man.

Somehow someway Polanski has managed to make this movie work and may even have created his best movie. How was this possible? I have no answer only that if it comes to cinema nothing is impossible for this man.

The second film which I believe deserves being mentioned is probably his most famous movie Chinatown (1974). A film Noir movie with a complex story line and even darker subject matters. Jack Nicholson shines in this one this is in my opinion his best performance. Initially the screenplay was roughly around 200 pages. Polanski saw potential in the script on deciding to proceed with making the movie he edited the majority of the screenplay whilst skillfully maintaining the intrigue and mysteries as intended.

Chinatown a masterpiece in the world of mystery drama.
Chinatown a masterpiece in the world of mystery drama.

Everything that makes a Roman Polanski movie great is present here from the dark gloomy atmosphere to a dark story about abuse and loss. Oh and Polanski makes a cameo appearance in this movie.

It was very difficult to choose a third movie however, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) the whole process from deciding to make the movie all the way to the movie itself demonstrates the greatness of Polanski. A friend had lent Roman Polanski a novel by the name of Rosemary`s baby and had asked him to give his opinion about whether the transition to a movie would be possible. Polanski read the book overnight and in the morning decided to write the screenplay and direct the movie. He finished the screenplay in less than three weeks. An amazing achievement on its own.

Rosemary's Baby
Rosemary’s Baby.



This is perhaps one of the most unsettling and disturbing movies Polanski has ever worked on. The story follows a housewife who is impregnated by the devil. The movie paved the way and raised public awareness of cult religious devil worshipers. It also went on to influence countless horror movies which dealt with this issue. This is perhaps his most artistic movie in terms of being able to create an extremely unsettling atmosphere despite keeping violence to a minimum. Distant still shots are filmed to perfection creating an illusion of a painting rather than a motion picture.

Roman Polanski has been a driving force in the world of cinema since the 1960’s and is still going strong releasing movies such as The Ghost Writer (2010) and Venus in Fur (2013) in recent years. He has shown that he has maintained what made him great and age has not been the cause of decline. Perhaps after the release of Tess (1979) he never managed to make movies to the same standards as his earlier years. Nonetheless, his movies speak to the heart and deal with subjects that we in normal life tend to avoid. Therefore, I consider Roman Polanski as my second favorite director of all time.


Favorite scene from a Roman Polanski movie:


The moment Rosemary realizes that she is in fact pregnant yet her reaction is not that of a hopeful mother waiting to embrace her child but one of fear. The fear that something is not quite right. This particular scene demonstrates the strong bond a mother has with her baby during labor and the emotional cues a mother can sense from her unborn child. A powerful scene from a powerful director.




Honorable movie mentions:

  • Cul-de-sac (1966)
  • Repulsion (1965)
  • Macbeth (1971)
  • The Tenant (1979) – Roman Polanski directed and played the main role. His first and only feature where he took on the leading role.
  • The Pianist (2002) – Film about a Polish-Jewish musician. Perhaps also a movie of his own experiences during the WWII.
  • Olive Twist (2005)



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