Roman Polanski (b. Paris, 1933) has, over the course of a half century, become recognized as one of the great modern masters of the cinema. Many of his films are infused with a mysterious, difficult-to-define sense of dread, which is understandable given much of his early life experience. Polanski’s parents were sent to a concentration camp, where his mother died, and he lived as a fugitive Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied Poland. His 1984 autobiography begins, “For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred,” and his films use the fantastical elements of cinema to make sense of the extraordinary reality he has experienced.
This view of the world as something menacing is present from his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962), through his award-winning The Ghost Writer (2010). And yet the depth of feeling in his Oscar-winning Holocaust film The Pianist speaks for itself. Like Alfred Hitchcock, who is in some sense Polanski’s stylistic mentor, the threat of chaos is always overlaid with wryly absurdist, dark humor—and frequently a triumphant humanism.

Organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film.

Thanks to Hanna Hartowicz, Jeff Berg, Michael Barker, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, and Harvard Film Archive.