ZURICH (Reuters) – Director Roman Polanski, whose turbulent life has on occasion come close to resembling the violent, perverse world of his movies, was arrested in Zurich on a 1978 US warrant for having sex with a 13-year-old.
Polanski, 76, was due to receive a prize for his life’s work at the Zurich Film Festival on Sunday evening, opening a retrospective of his distinguished film career, but he was arrested after arriving in Switzerland on Saturday night.
Calling Polanski, who won Best Director Oscar for “The Pianist” in 2003, one of the greatest film directors of our time, festival organisers said they had “received this news with great consternation and shock.”
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand was “stunned” to hear about the arrest, his office said, adding President Nicolas Sarkozy was following the case and hoped the matter could be resolved, allowing Polanski to return to his family.
“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,” Polanski’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France Info radio.
Zurich Cantonal Police spokesman Stefan Oberlin said the arrest of Polanski, who is a French citizen, was carried out on instruction from the Federal Justice Department in Berne.
Polanski was arrested in the United States in the late 1970s and charged with giving drugs and alcohol to a 13-year-old girl and having unlawful sex with her at a photographic shoot at Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood home.
Maintaining the girl was sexually experienced and had consented, Polanski spent 42 days in prison undergoing psychiatric tests but fled the country before being sentenced.
Considered by U.S. authorities as a fugitive from justice, Polanski, whose films include “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” has lived in France, avoiding countries that have extradition treaties with the United States.
“Both the extradition arrest warrant and any extradition decision can be challenged in the Federal Penal Court,” the Swiss Federal Justice Department said, adding these decisions could in turn be taken further to Switzerland’s Federal Court of Justice.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office received word last week that Polanski would be in Zurich and prosecutors sent a provisional arrest warrant to Swiss authorities, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.
Gibbons said it was not the first time the office had prepared paperwork for his arrest after receiving reports that Polanski would be traveling to countries with extradition treaties with the United States.
“But he never showed up in the country where he was supposed to be, and he was never arrested,” she said.
When asked if prosecutors would seek jail time for Polanski if he is returned to the United States, Gibbons said: “It will be up to the court to determine what will happen to Mr. Polanski as far as sentencing … We’ve always maintained this is a matter between Polanski and the court.”
Few lives have turned into the macabre public spectacle that Polanski’s has, first after the gruesome murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in 1969 by the Charles Manson murder cult, and again eight years later when he was arrested for the statutory rape of the 13-year-old girl.
Fantasies and fears
But few directors have laid bare their inner fantasies and fears like Polanski in films such as “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant” — films of disturbing brutality shot through with voyeurism and dark humour.
From early childhood when he escaped the Nazi Holocaust in Poland, Polanski’s life has appeared, like his movies, to hover precariously on the brink of tragedy.
“I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion,” said best-selling British writer Robert Harris who worked with Polanski to make his book “The Ghost” into a film.
“(The French culture minister) profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life, which has bubbled with spirit and creativity,” the statement from his ministry said.
Born Raymond Polanski to Polish-Jewish parents on August 18, 1933, he spent the first three years of his life in Paris before the family returned to Poland.
When the Germans sealed off the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1940, his father shouted to Roman to run and he escaped. His mother later died in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
His first full-length feature film after graduation, “Knife in the Water,” won awards and, most important for Polanski, was his ticket to the West.
As his reputation grew — first with “Repulsion,” his study of a woman terrified by sex who becomes a psychotic murderer, and then with the absurdist masterpiece “Cul de Sac” — Polanski developed a taste for the high life and beautiful women.
In 1974 Polanski had another major Hollywood success with “Chinatown,” a stylish thriller starring Nicholson that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but his private life stayed unsettled as he drifted between Paris, Rome and Los Angeles and embarked on numerous short-lived affairs.
In 2003, he won the Oscar for “The Pianist,” the story of a Jewish-Polish musician who sees his world collapse with the outbreak of World War Two and the invasion of Poland. It won three Academy Awards.
“I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf,” Polanski wrote in his autobiography. “My friends — and the women in my life — know better.”