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02.14.10

Polanski's 'Ghost' Haunts Berlin

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer premiered at the Berlin Film Festival without him, and eerily parallels the fugitive director’s life—and Tony Blair’s.

The parallels are eerie. Just a few weeks after Tony Blair testified before a commission in England investigating Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, The Ghost Writer is set to open in theaters. Based on a novel by Robert Harris, who admits he was inspired by the controversy swirling around Blair, the gripping film tells the story of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to co-author the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is under attack for leading Britain into Iraq and also for authorizing the kidnapping and torture by the CIA of four British citizens suspected of ties to al Qaeda.

“I was very upset for his family, especially for his children,” Ghost Writer star Pierce Brosnan says of Polanski. “I wish closure for him and also for the woman who was involved in the original case.”

That story would be enough to make the film timely and explosive. But to add to the bizarre parallels between fiction and reality, The Ghost Writer imagines that Adam Lang, the former PM, is now living on a secluded island off the East Coast of America, partly to avoid extradition to The Hague, where an international criminal court is threatening to charge him with war crimes. Because the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the world court, Lang feels confident that the American government will not turn him over to the tribunal. As it happens, The Ghost Writer is directed by Roman Polanski, who for the last three decades has lived and worked in European countries that do not have extradition treaties with the U.S. Polanski is still a fugitive from American justice because he fled the country before being sentenced for having sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. When Polanski directed Tess soon after his flight from the U.S., he had to recreate Thomas Hardy’s Wessex in France; if he had set foot in the U.K., he would have been arrested and sent back to America. All of his films since then have been made in France or in other European countries that did not have extradition agreements with America.

But in September 2009, when Polanski arrived in Zurich to be honored at a film festival, he was seized by the authorities who threatened at long last to send him back to a courtroom in the United States. After spending several weeks in a Swiss prison, he was released to his chateau in Gstaad, where he has been under house arrest ever since. According to Ghost Writer producer Robert Benmussa, Polanski was sent courier packages from his editor while he was in prison, and he completed the final cut of the film while under house arrest.

At the world premiere of The Ghost Writer at the Berlin Film Festival this weekend, all the major players from the film—including McGregor, Brosnan, co-star Olivia Williams, Harris, and the producers—described the ironies of appearing at the premiere without the film’s prime mover, Polanski. An added irony is that the film was shot in its entirety in Germany last year, but the agreement with Swiss and American law-enforcement officials prevented the director from traveling here to take part in the festivities. Of course this is not the first major event that Polanski has had to miss. When he won the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003, he could not attend the award ceremony in Hollywood. While the filmmaking team all regretted Polanski’s absence from the high-profile premiere in Berlin, Harris noted puckishly at the press conference, “Ewan does such a good impersonation of Roman, it’s almost as if he is here.”

McGregor echoes the comments of many of Polanski’s collaborators over the years, acknowledging that the director can be ruthless in pushing his co-workers to realize his vision. For example, the director famously battled Faye Dunaway on Chinatown, at one point even pulling out an unruly hair from her head because the loose strand was messing up his shot.

“Actors are sensitive,” McGregor notes, “and it can be painful to hear your director telling you that you did the scene wrong. But he speaks the same way to the prop guy and to everyone on the crew. Once you realize not to take it personally, it’s liberating.”

Brosnan echoes the sentiment, commenting that work on a Polanski film is “intense”—and not always in a pleasurable way. But he found the experience stimulating, and he says, “I was shocked and saddened by his arrest. I was very upset for his family, especially for his children. I wish closure for him and also for the woman who was involved in the original case.”

That woman, Samantha Geimer, has said that she wants the case against Polanski dismissed, but it is not up to her to decide. The charges against him are still open, and every time his lawyers move to have the charges dismissed, there is a public uproar in America that makes a resolution unlikely. The attitude seemed quite different in Berlin, where European press and audience members seemed sympathetic to the director and regretful about his continued vilification in some quarters in America.

On the other hand, audience members were less sympathetic to the real-life model for the movie’s protagonist, Tony Blair. Despite Blair’s unapologetic defense of his alliance with George W. Bush in going to war in Iraq, there seems unlikely to be any easy resolution of British anger toward their former prime minister. “I wrote my novel in 2007,” Harris recalls, “and it daily becomes more and more like a documentary. There is still a lot of disquiet in Britain. Blair never apologized to families of soldiers killed in Iraq.”

Harris reports that when Polanski read the manuscript of his novel, the director saw that it had some similarities to his award-winning Chinatown. That classic movie has the same political undertones, an equally complex plot, and the same mordant ending. But of course Chinatown was set comfortably in the past, while The Ghost Writer deals explosively with events still unfolding. Polanski relished the prospect of controversy. Still, no one involved in the movie could have predicted quite how the director’s own past would come back to haunt him and his latest cinematic opus.

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Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case ; and Hollywood on the Couch .