Polanski in Poland: National Hero or Disgraced Icon?

Roman Polanski's tarnished image may never recover in his homeland, Poland.

ByTomek Rolski
September 29, 2009, 10:56 AM

WARSAW, Poland, Sept. 29, 2009 — -- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk today brushed aside any notion that Poles should be fixated over Roman Polanki's arrest.

"I don't think this national uproar is appropriate," he told reporters. "This is a moral and legal matter and not one of national or political consequence."

Polanski's arrest on charges that he fled the U.S. more than 30 years ago to avoid sentencing on a child rape charge has energized Polish public opinion to such a degree that even the Prime Minister felt it necessary to calm emotions. And, crucially, to distance himself from the case. In contrast to Tusk, many ministers in his cabinet view Polanski as a source of national pride -- and standing up for him as a matter of national prestige.

Polanski's popularity in Poland has always been huge. His rare theatrical performances sell out months in advance. He speaks to packed audience halls and his early films are treated as icons of contemporary Polish culture. In a country where film schools and the art of movie making have traditionally enjoyed a unique status, Polanski, a Lodz Film School alumnus, is simply revered.

No wonder that his arrest made such an impact. Polish newspapers, TV and news Web sites are brimming with the Polanski case. And it is not just the average reader and viewer who are interested. His arrest has literally hit the Polish political scene.

During his couple of days in Swiss custody, Polanski has managed to pitch political parties against one another and to spark a national debate on morality and art.

Polish political life is being dominated by Polanski's case. Some are asking if the government is doing enough to defend him. Others argue that the state should not squander its authority by sympathizing with a pedophile.

Everyone feels obligated to take a stand. President Lech Kaczynski got his lawyers involved and said, "Polanski is morally wrong. But much time has passed…"

Ex-president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa came out in Polanski's defense saying that, "He'd already repented for the sins of his youth."

The highly respected Association of Polish Film Makers issued an open letter. Its signatories appealed to the Polish president and government to take "energetic steps to free Polish citizen Roman Polanski and to prevent his extradition to the USA."

"Although the events from thirty years ago were morally wrong, Polanski's departure from the USA was an escape from a court lynch. There were solid reasons to believe that Roman Polanski would not be given a fair trial," the letter continued.

Poland Has Europe's Harshest Law Against Pedophilia

As emotions run high, some reactions verged on the bizarre. Film director Borys Lankosz, whose new film will be in the running for the Oscars, fumed against the Swiss. In a TVN24 interview he insinuated that the Swiss were prostitutes "who agreed to set up a trap by inviting Polanski and then caught him...Switzerland is not a place to visit, not in a long time," said Lankosz.

The big irony is that the often uncritical and unconditional involvement in Polanski's case is happening against the backdrop of a new Polish law against pedophilia. Polish elites who defend Polanski so vehemently seem to forget that only last week (Sept. 24), the Polish Parliament passed Europe's harshest law against pedophilia.

Parliament amended the penal code and made it legal to subject convicted pedophiles to pharmaceutical treatment. Some consider this legislature highly controversial and dubbed it "chemical castration." However, legislators who passed the amendment argue that such treatment will stop pedophiles committing crimes against the under aged.

In the context of this recent legislature, Polish authorities now understand they need to be careful in their words and actions defending Polanski. Otherwise they will no doubt be accused of hypocrisy.

Only yesterday, there were some in the government who called on the foreign minister to get President Obama involved. Today, they have toned down their language considerably and the outrage is more controlled.

According to Bogdan Zdrojewski, Poland's minister of culture, the reaction is "reserved, calm and up to the point." A spokesperson for the Polish Foreign Ministry told ABC News that "The Polish Ambassador met with Polanski for two hours and we are providing him with all the assistance he needs. We are taking all the steps we feel necessary to secure Mr. Polanski's fair treatment."

Polish, French Foreign Ministers Appeal to Hillary Clinton

One of these steps is an appeal letter to Hillary Clinton. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner are sending it jointly (Polanski holds dual citizenship – Polish and French).

The main reason the authorities have now started to take a low-key approach is their electorate. An opinion poll published today shows that less than 25 percent of Poles would like to see Polanski escape another trial. "This is a very surprising result," says Jan Stolarz, a sociologist with a polling organization.

He told ABC News that "in light of the near-hero status Polanski enjoys here, this is very telling. People no longer believe that achievement can buy you immunity and that all are equal before the law...This is very encouraging," adds Stolarz.

Results of the opinion poll are reflected by many Web site comments. Most readers would like to see Polanski extradited to the U.S.

"I'm ashamed that my president and a few ministers are protecting a pedophile," reads one. "Law is law and money cannot buy you justice. Polanski, Obama or Mr. Jones -- in a lawful state all are equal."

To many Poles, Polanski had been an iconic figure. Events from 30 years ago, his past, were just an ambiguous blur, certainly nothing that could overcast his greatness.

Today, there seems to be a change. With Polish public reaction so vocal and negative, with the past once again revealed, Polanski's tarnished image may never recover in his homeland. Only a handful of politicians and fellow artists appear to be dedicated to saving the icon.

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