So Bernard-Henri Levy, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Mike Nichols, Isabelle Adjani, William Shawcross, Pedro Almodovar, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Harvey Weinstein, Tilda Swinton, Monica Bellucci and dozens of other celebrities have attached their names to petitions deploring the recent arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland. Polanski was arrested because he plied a 13-year-old with alcohol and a drug (Quaalone), made her strip, and raped her. He did this in 1977, pled guilty to a lesser charge (sex with a minor), and before he could be sentenced, fled the USA in 1978, never to return.
I knew little about Polanski before recent events: I had seen one film (Chinatown) which was brilliant, and disturbing; and I knew his wife had been murdered by the Manson cult. I now know that he escaped the Nazis at seven, and his mother died in Auschwitz. He had claimed that the encounter with the 13-year-old was consensual. Though that doesn’t excuse it, I had not thought much about it one way or another, even when he was in the news in 2005 for winning an Oscar.
So when news of the arrest broke, my reaction was roughly: “What he did was wrong and criminal, but it was 30 years ago, and he’d had a very disturbed life, from fleeing the Nazis as a 7-year-old to the murder of his pregnant wife by the Manson cult… Perhaps we should be asking why the French didn’t extradite him back in 1978 when his crime was fresh. They had no treaty obligations but they could certainly decide on a case-by-case basis.” (In fact that’s what I posted in a comment on a facebook thread.)
Since then, despite the victim’s wishes, the details of the incident have become widely known and her testimony to the jury is available on the internet. It is indeed stomach-churning. It was not “statutory rape”. It was rape, committed on a girl who had been drugged and fed alcohol but was still capable of repeatedly asking him to stop, and even feigning asthma in an attempt to make him stop and let her leave. If she had been over 18, it would still have been rape. But the “statutory rape” charge was easier to prove: there was evidence of sexual contact, and there was no doubt about her age. So Polanski got away with a plea bargain. Then when he had doubts about the judge’s intentions of honouring the bargain, he skipped.
Was he remorseful? Not in 1979: take a look at this excerpt of an interview that year with Martin Amis. I don’t know of any expression of remorse since. He seems not only to think he had done nothing wrong, but to have persuaded many well-known people that he was the victim in the matter.
So my opinion has hardened now. Let him stay in jail — Swiss or American — for life.
The bulk of the US-based opinion that I have been reading seems to agree on that. In fact I have seen no coherent defence of letting Polanski go. It seems to come down to his tragic past, the length of elapsed time since the crime, and the victim’s views. But none of these should be relevant. Millions of people suffer personal tragedies without becoming child rapists. He was free for 30 years because he was a fugitive, not because law enforcement was lax. And violent crimes are prosecuted regardless of the victim’s wishes (in many cases, though probably not in this one, the victim is too scared to talk).
Even in France, according to the NYT, the public is not favourably disposed to Polanski, and the elite are having second thoughts about supporting him.
But I wonder about all those eminent signatories of petitions. Many of them knew Polanski and surely knew something about the case before they signed; but if they didn’t when they signed, they certainly would have since. Do they still support letting someone who drugged and raped a child go free?