Polanski's art not greater than his crime

Roman PolanskiThe 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 by followers of Charles Manson.

The psychological picture provides an excuse, or at the very least, mitigating circumstances that curb more vicious aspects of consent.

Great art, it would seem, dispenses with the law. For Alexander Mikhailov of the Kazan State Conservatoire, the allegations against Pletnev were 'nothing but a brazen lie', despite a past history with the police, as reported in Moskovsky Komsomolets, of 'luring juveniles' to premises for sexual purposes. Back in 1989, Pletnev could claim he was backed by the highest figures in the country who made sure any prosecution never took place.

There is an undercurrent of questioning that the authorities in Pattaya are not to be trusted, themselves practitioners of extortion and blackmail. Then, there are references in the Russian press about the precedent of the Czar's reaction to Tchaikovsky's dalliances with boys: 'There are many boys, but there is only one Tchaikovsky.' Besides, rage the chat rooms on the subject, a great artist has become the victim of 'the machinations of Russophobes'.

Laws, according to the late Portuguese author José Saramago, exist where the conscience refuses to speak. Art itself is never a dispensation for questionable ethical conduct. It may well indemnify the human condition for its frailties, but it is not an excuse for crime. Polanski and Pletnev, in truth, hail from a rather recent line of forgiveness for the celebrity by the celebrity. To the accused, it seems, go the spoils.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Roman Polanski, Mikhail Pletnev, sharon tate, charles manson, Bernard-Henri Lévy.Alexander Mikhailov



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Existing comments

Polansky's getting away free, handed to him by the Swiss, is indeed a sad reflection on Swiss justice. The judge in question has placed art and celebrity above the rights of the victim. It is shameful and does no credit to us when we become so warped we feel no outrage against the harm done to the young or the vulnerable.

Eveline Goy | 16 July 2010  

The question is which justice system is to blame? The USA for letting him go and failing to provide documents to enable his return?
The French for giving him French Citizenship or the Swiss for following local legal guidelines?

Polanski Case Timeline:
"Mar 1977: Roman Polanski, 43, has sexual intercourse with Samantha Geimer, 13.

Apr: Polanski pleads not guilty at trial for rape then in August changes plea to guilty of statutory rape; sentenced to 3 months jail for psychiatric tests.

Jan 1978: Flees to Paris, judge then refuses to give verdict in absentia.

Aug 1994: Prosecutor refuses to dismiss case unless Polanski appears in court. Polanski had already ended the civil case by paying Geimer $225,000.

Dec 2008: Polanski lawyers call for case to be dropped over original trial's unfairness.

Sep 26, 2009: Polanski arrested on arrival at Zurich airport.

Sep 28: Appeals against extradition request; receives wide support from film world and French politicians and intellectuals.

Oct 6: Federal Justice Office refuses to release him.

Oct 23: US formally requests extradition.

Nov 25: Swiss court agrees to house arrest in Gstaad on bail of SFr4.5 million.

Dec 4: Polanski moves to Gstaad chalet, wearing electronic surveillance bracelet.

Jan 2010: Los Angeles court rejects request for trial in absentia, a decision confirmed by appeal court in April.

July 12: Swiss justice minister announces rejection of extradition request."

Beat Odermatt | 16 July 2010  

Recently the Swiss govt. requested documents/ information/whatever, from the US. The US refused and the Swiss released Polanski. Sounds like the US justice can blame themselves for this mess as they also refused a trial in absentia. Had they held the trial Polanski would probably have been found guilty come what may and the world would see Polanski as a convicted felon. The lady at the centre of this case has asked publicly that the case be dropped and who could argue with her after 30 years. Some years ago she changed her story a couple of times possibly to make the publicity go away and to allow her to get on with her life. According to reports, Polanski pleaded guilty and had a plea deal with the Prosecutor which it was rumoured the judge was planning to renege on and this was why he fled. Those who are closer to this case and the characters at it's centre are entitled to their opinions one of which could be that Polanski is Jewish and whether we like it or not Anti Semetism is alive and well in some parts of the world including the USA. Think about the ratio of blacks to whites in the American prison system. What was the track record of the Prosecutor and the Judge. Too long ago to tell now. I think it's unfortunate that the Arts community is being bagged over this when the writer has recounted only three examples over 200 years.

Phil | 18 July 2010  

I note that a number of US actors have said that Polanski has suffered enough and the matter should be dropped. I doubt they would be so magnanimous if Polanski was a catholic priest.

Peter | 18 July 2010  

The Rule of Law requires that the law be applied equally , irrespective of station , eminence or artistic brilliance. Fame is not a defence or excuse.Nor is brilliance or attistic eminence . Mr Polanski has admitted to a serious crime and should face the consequences by a judicial decision which will should not be sheltered behind a smokescreen created by other artists and those who would want to see the Rule of Law distorted..

Barry O'Keefe | 19 July 2010  

Thanks Beat for bringing in some details, it shows that the case was quite complex, as is always the case. I don't mean to 'bag' the Arts community, or be in any way anti-semitic, but like Barry O'Keefe, I do think that the law should be applied equally, regardless of irrelevant considerations. This is what is owed to the victims, it is part of their healing process.

Eveline Goy | 21 July 2010  


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