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Polanski's art not greater than his crime

  • 16 July 2010
The decision by a Swiss judge not to extradite film director Roman Polanski to the US has again triggered the debate about how artists are treated by the law. The case has been running simultaneously to that of Russian musician Mikhail Pletnev, award winning performer and founder of the Russian National Orchestra.

The parallels are striking. While one should not pre-judge the case with Pletnev, who has been accused of twice raping a 14-year-old boy at a Thai beach resort, it is fitting to note how some in the Russian press have sought to exonerate and cleanse him. Music critics have been silent as the tomb.

Pletnev's own response to the charges was swift. 'I would jump from the 26th floor (of a building) tomorrow, if I could believe those news reports. It's interesting to learn something new about myself everyday.'

The French press, and various intellectuals and personalities, huddled around Polanski on his arrest by the Swiss authorities in 2009. In 1978, Polanski had admitted guilt in a plea bargain to the charge of having unlawful sex with a minor, but left the United States before he could be sentenced. This did not trouble the intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, whose petition proved heavy with the desperation and drama of the persecuted artist or political dissident. 'Apprehended like a common terrorist ... as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prisons,' Lévy wrote in the Huffington Post.

The terms in this are unmistakable: it implies an unimpeachable quality in the work that is itself exculpatory — the artist purified by genius; the artist above law. The law, after all, must always be transgressed for there to be a vibrant, self-critical culture. Poets, said Shelley on that particularly irritable tribe of artists, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

And, then, the emphasis on Polanski as a political hero, 'a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland'. Take the view of commentator Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post who diminishes the agency of a bedroom act with the weight of historical tragedy. 'Polanski's mother died at Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto and later emigrated to communist Poland.' Then, of course, came the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969