In the 32 years since Roman Polanski fled the U.S., his case has been a hotly debated cause célèbre, highlighting, among other things, how Europeans and Americans see sex, crime, and celebrity differently.
And Monday’s decision by Swiss authorities to deny a request for Polanski’s extradition to the U.S. didn’t dim those disagreements or quell the calls for justice. Philip Vannatter, the retired detective who originally arrested Polanski on felony charges, including rape by use of drugs and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, is still angry about what happened more than three decades ago. “He should have been tried for rape and supplying a minor with drugs—he should never have been able to plea bargain to start with,” Vannatter told The Daily Beast. “Had he not been who he was, he would never have gotten a plea. Had he been me—or some poor dope on the street—he would have been locked up. His only suffering was not being able to make as much money as he would have been able to had he still been free and living here.”
"Had he not been who he was, he would never have gotten a plea. Had he been me—or some poor dope on the street—he would have been locked up."
But the French film director and screenwriter, Danièle Thompson, who is a friend of Polanski, said that the director had had “a rough time” during the last nine months, including the seven he was kept under house arrest in his chalet in Gstaad. “The man was locked in his chalet for seven months with a bracelet. He could not leave for five minutes. He could not even go out to read a book. Obviously, it’s better than being in jail. But he is nearly 77 years old…and it was a very, very tough thing for him.”
During his house arrest, Polanski was visited by his wife and children, and also found time to work. His most recent film, The Ghost Writer, was a critically acclaimed thriller that took place largely inside an isolated house, its famous resident hounded by the press and detractors.
Whether Polanski’s own fame has hurt or helped him is still a subject that makes tempers flare. Vannatter felt strongly that Polanski’s status as a celebrity got him preferential treatment by the authorities while Thompson argued the opposite point: “If he [had been] a nobody they would not have looked at him the way they did. He’s been treated like a serial killer.”
Bernard-Henri Levy, the French writer and intellectual (himself no stranger to fame) told a reporter on Monday that he was “crazy with joy” over the Swiss decision. Levy has spoken out passionately in defense of Polanski, and last year organized a controversial petition demanding Polanski’s release. “Roman Polanski ended up with a bad judge,” Levy told The Daily Beast a few weeks ago, before the Swiss decision. “It happens in every country. The judge decided, and then he un-decided. He agreed to a deal and then he went back on it. It isn’t that the judge went against the recommendation of the prosecutor; he went back on his own word.”
In 1977, Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Geimer. But because he fled the country before sentencing, the remaining charges are still pending.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Swiss authorities denied the request to extradite Roman Polanski,” said Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley in a prepared statement. “Our office complied fully with all of the factual and legal requirements of the extradition treaty and requests by the U.S. and Swiss Departments of Justice and State.” According to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. County prosecutors and U.S. State Department officials were outraged by the decision and promised to continue to go after the filmmaker.
“A 13-year-old girl was drugged and raped,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told the paper. “To push this case aside based on technicalities we think is regrettable ... We think it sends a very important message regarding how ... women and girls are treated around the world.”
Polanski, who was born in France to Polish parents, is a French citizen and has built a home in Paris, with his wife, the actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who is almost 33 years younger than him.
During the last nine months, the French government has played a high-profile role, trying to win freedom for the director. At one point, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help free Polanski. (Clinton apparently made it clear that justice in a California courtroom was outside her purview.)
The Swiss ruling meant that the case was effectively over, said Vannatter. “It means he’s never coming back to the United States and so the sentence is never going to be imposed,” he said.
“He made a terrible mistake and he’s admitted it,” said Thompson, the director. “He’s a tired old man now, and he needs to be with his family and his wife and gain some weight and not be despised.”
Expect him back at his favorite restaurant in Paris—not on a talk show asking for forgiveness.
“Roman Polanski is not Tiger Woods,” said Levy. “He is not the sort of man to perform in a comedy of remorse [in front of a] television camera, which is the most vulgar, insincere, unauthentic, and phony way.”
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.