LONDON AND PARIS — Which of his films does Roman Polanski's life resemble most: "Rosemary's Baby," his horror classic about a devil whose libido is hideously visited upon an innocent young woman, or "The Pianist," his Oscar-winning tale of an artist who survives relentless state persecution?
Here in Europe, where the celebrated director finds himself looking at the world from behind bars instead of through a movie camera, it all depends on whom you ask.
To those in the arts community, especially in France where Polanski lives, he has been cast as a hounded hero whose arrest in Switzerland on Saturday smacks of something "frightening" about America. The same sentiment holds in Polanski's homeland, Poland, where a prominent group of Polish artists, writers, actors and film directors issued an open letter titled "Free Roman Polanski."
"What happened 30 years ago and the role Polanski played in it deserves negative moral evaluation," the letter says. "But we also want to point out that for Roman Polanski, leaving the United States was an escape from a court lynching."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Polanski case: An article in Tuesday's Section A about Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland misstated actress Debra Winger's role at the Zurich Film Festival. She is president of the festival jury, not the festival itself.
Yet test the mood beyond the entertainment industry and sympathy for Polanski is far less forthcoming. In an online poll in the French daily Le Figaro, more than 70% of nearly 29,500 respondents said Polanski should face justice for his alleged crimes. And in Zurich, where police arrested Polanski at the request of Los Angeles authorities when he arrived to headline a film festival, 40-year-old Maja Tanner applauded the arrest.
"He deserves it, because let's not forget that the person we are talking about was a child," Tanner said of the 13-year-old girl with whom Polanski admitted having sex in 1977, after plying her with alcohol and drugs. He fled the U.S. before he could be sentenced for his guilty plea to having sex with a minor.
"As a mother, I can only affirm that it is right what our government did, and that I would want to see justice even after so many years," said Tanner, a homemaker.
For the moment, Polanski is holed up in the cell of an unidentified Swiss jail, allowed an hour of outdoor exercise each day, the Associated Press reported. His lawyer, Herve Temime, told the AP that he would seek bail for the 76-year-old director and vigorously fight extradition to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the court of public opinion has been convened, with verdicts pouring in and the European media having a Roman holiday.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa called Polanski a "great person" and pleaded, "If he did this one sin, forgive him."
The French cultural and political establishment sought to fit Polanski's detention into the classic plot line of American prudery and priggishness.
"There's the America of art and culture, and then there's American justice, which is very Puritan, which doesn't forget, which doesn't forgive, that absolutely wants enforce, exercise the law, punish," said Serge Toubiana, head of the French film archive and heritage institution, the Cinematheque Francaise. "Justice has a right to be exercised, but not in any old way."
The notion that the occasion of a film festival honoring a celebrated director could be used to set up a police sting seemed to particularly rankle. "A man of such talent, recognized throughout the world, recognized especially in the country that arrests him -- all this is not very pleasant," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
But support for Polanski and demands that the case against him be dropped were not just a case of some particular French penchant for granting moral dispensation to artists. The portrayal of a mistreated Polanski was prevalent in art circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
In an open letter, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein called on "every U.S. filmmaker to lobby against any move to bring Polanski back to the U.S.," arguing that "whatever you think of the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time."
A similar petition is being organized in Italy, with signatories including actress Monica Bellucci and director Giuseppe Tornatore, according to the newspaper La Repubblica. And the Swiss daily Le Temps worried about the effect of the detention on the country's image.
"For this brave and efficient cooperation with the American authorities, Switzerland shocks cinephiles and friends of the arts. She angers Poland and France," the paper wrote.
Still, in a snap poll by the Basler Zeitung newspaper, two-thirds of respondents said Swiss police had done the right thing in arresting Polanski. And the law-and-order argument was heard loudly in Britain, where people have become experts of sorts in the long shadows cast by old crimes.
Last month, British authorities granted early release on medical grounds to Ronnie Biggs, who helped commit the notorious Great Train Robbery of 1963, and Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Both decisions sparked outrage and contempt, emotions that also surfaced Monday over the Polanski case.