Cinema and Media Studies Roman Polanski
Elzbieta Ostrowska
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0130


Roman Polanski’s persona is as contradictory as his films. A Holocaust survivor, he started his cinematic career in Poland. The hostile reception to his film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), and the stifling atmosphere of the Communist regime pushed him to emigrate to the West. The critical recognition of his films made in Britain paved the way to Hollywood, where he made two films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), that solidified his artistic position. His happy and successful life was destroyed in 1969, when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson Family. Eight years later, in 1977, Polanski fled the United States after being accused of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Since then he has lived in France. In 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland at the request of US authorities, who demanded his extradition. He was finally released by the Swiss authorities in 2010, though the US charges remain on file. Polanski’s tangled artistic biography is paralleled by the fluctuating field of meanings in his films. In his work he uses, but also transgresses, the forms both of popular and art cinema. His films display a stylistic transparency typical of the classical model of cinema, yet his self-conscious control of the mise-en-scène produces an aesthetic surplus usually associated with art cinema. Moreover, the absurdist narratives and surreal imagery permeating his work situate it within the realm of modernist cinema. Working within generic frameworks, Polanski shows his mastery of them. However, in often deconstructing their attendant formulas he gravitates toward a less prescriptive model of auteur cinema. His brief, yet highly productive, encounter with Hollywood cinema marks a significant reconsideration of the genres of horror and film noir. Likewise, in his adaptations he undertakes a critical dialogue with the literary canon (Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens), which he always rereads from a historically determined authorial position. Recurrent motifs of violence and voyeurism shape Polanski’s gender discourse. This ranges from representations complicit with dominant ideologies to those that effectively subvert them. Thus, the identity of Polanski’s characters is also presented as constantly fluctuating and shifting in spectatorial positions problematizing emotional affinities. In his films, Polanski perpetually redefines his own position within the global cinematic discourse. Migrating across various political structures, film production systems, and cultural milieus, he approaches every cinematic tradition from outside with an ironic distance and aesthetic distrust. None of his films can be located within a singular aesthetic framework. With its methodological diversity, critical writing on Polanski reflects the hybridity of his work. In addition, his turbulent private life punctures the possibility of a solid and overconfident critical discourse around his films. Thus, the notion of his position within auteur cinema is constantly evolving.

General Overviews

In the first monographs on Polanski, Butler 1970 and Kané 1970 examine the films made up to the 1970s as engaged with a specific range of themes and employing particular aesthetic strategies developed within the tradition of European modernism. As well as emphasizing the importance of the modernist aspect of his work, Wexman 1985 and Stachówna 1994 analyze its later affinity with genre cinema. For the authors of both works the coexistence of these two seemingly separate aesthetic traditions lays the foundation of Polanski’s authorship. The most-recent monographs, Mazierska 2007 and Morrison 2007, additionally employ the theoretical framework of auteur cinema, with all the current revisions and redefinitions of the term. They both put an emphasis on the heterogeneity and ambiguity of Polanski’s work and see this as typical of contemporaneous transnational cinema developing within various aesthetic models and across cultures. Aesthetic and ideological contradictions in the director’s oeuvre are addressed in Orr and Ostrowska 2006, a collection of essays authored by an international team of critics employing various methodological approaches directed at specific aspects of selected films. A psychoanalytically oriented monograph, Jacke 2010 focuses on a singular aspect of Polanski’s cinema, arguing for its traumatic nature.

  • Butler, Ivan. The Cinema of Roman Polanski. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1970.

    The first English-language monograph on Polanski offers a detailed survey of his work since his debut, up to Rosemary’s Baby. It focuses on aesthetic affinities with modernism, surrealism, and the Theatre of Cruelty in particular, and on recurring themes and motifs, with sexuality as the most prominent.

  • Jacke, Andreas. Roman Polanski: Traumatische Seelenlandschaften. Giessen, Germany: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2010.

    A psychoanalytical analysis and interpretation of Polanski’s films, reflecting upon traumatic events in his life. A book that belongs to the realm of the psychology of an artist rather than to film studies, it offers a coherent perspective on the filmmaker’s oeuvre.

  • Kané, Pascal. Roman Polanski. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1970.

    The book examines the dominant themes, motifs, and structural patterns that Polanski uses in his films made up to the 1970s. It contributes to the study of the filmmaker as a cinematic auteur.

  • Mazierska, Ewa. Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller. London: I. B. Taurus, 2007.

    Locating Polanski’s work within the framework of auteur theory, Mazierska in her comprehensive analysis not only examines its thematic and stylistic coherence but focuses also on its heterogeneity, ambiguity, and paradoxes that explain the director’s position at the crossroads of various modes of cinema.

  • Morrison, James. Roman Polanski. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

    Contradictory in their tensions between low and high culture, Polanski’s international coproductions are convincingly identified by Morrison as reflecting upon multiple identities in modern Europe. In tracing out various discontinuities and fissures within the director’s body of work, Morrison works within Deleuze and Foucault’s theoretical and philosophical debates.

  • Orr, John, and Elżbieta Ostrowska, eds. The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces of the World. London: Wallflower, 2006.

    A collection of essays on selected films, highlighting the recurrent motifs and themes of Polanski’s work as well as its aesthetic and ideological contradictions. Close readings of the films are located within a broader context of the dilemmas of modern culture.

  • Stachówna, Grażyna. Roman Polański i jego filmy. Warsaw, Poland: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1994.

    Convincingly examining all the complexities and paradoxes of Polanski’s status as a film auteur, Stachówna locates his films within the framework of genre cinema. She claims that the director deconstructs its various conventions in terms both of narrative patterns and visual style.

  • Wexman, Virginia Wright. Roman Polanski. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

    Beginning with Polanski’s formative years in Poland, Wexman productively examines his further engagement first with modernism and later with popular generic cinema. She also offers extended analyses of Macbeth, Chinatown, and Tess as exemplifying a mature stage in his filmmaking.

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