The Judge and the Auteur: Revisiting the Polanski Case
MARINA ZENOVICH’S office here looks as if it should belong to an absent-minded film professor. A cluttered room adjacent to an editing suite on the city’s west side, it is packed with file folders containing hundreds of press clippings and the inevitable stacks of videotape. But a corkboard on the wall betrays a preoccupation that stirs more than academic passions in these parts.
The board is dominated by two photographs. One shows an almost young Roman Polanski, dressed in a dapper suit, hair parted to one side, looking lean, boyish and handsome. The other reveals a man in a black robe, with thinning white hair and a roundish face supported by a stocky frame. The caption under it reads, “Laurence J. Rittenband, Judge.”
“These two men met their match in each other,” said Ms. Zenovich in an interview last month.
Laurence J. Rittenband, who died in 1993, was the California judge who almost 30 years ago presided over the notorious case in which Mr. Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor. Even after Mr. Polanski fled to France in advance of his sentencing date, the judge vowed to stay on the bench until he returned to the United States.
Instead, Mr. Polanski, now 73 and a French citizen, remained a fugitive, and prospered as a film director, winning an Oscar in 2003 for “The Pianist.” Judge Rittenband, who left the bench in 1989, died at 88 without completing his quest. But he left behind enough professional and personal drama to have joined Mr. Polanski as a central character in Ms. Zenovich’s forthcoming documentary, which promises to shed new light on one of modern Hollywood’s more perplexing episodes.
The new film, unfinished and untitled, is being produced by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (“Thirteen”) and Lila Yacoub (“The Anniversary Party”), and has Steven Soderbergh as an executive producer. It was recently acquired for distribution in Britain by the BBC, and when it eventually appears here in theaters or on the festival circuit, it will likely renew the debate over whether Mr. Polanski still has a price to pay if he returns to the United States.
Ms. Zenovich, a 43-year-old former actress who once had a small part in “The Player,” said it is impossible to reach conclusions about Mr. Polanski without drawing Judge Rittenband into the equation.
“I’ve never set out to diminish the seriousness of what Polanski did, but it comes down to crime and punishment,” she explained. “How much do you have to pay for the crime? What I’ve always set out to prove is, despite what Polanski did, which was awful, he was treated unfairly by the judge. That’s the bottom line.”
Convinced that even reasonably well informed people do not completely understand the Polanski case, Ms. Zenovich pursued a doggedly reportorial course, undeterred by Mr. Polanski’s refusal to participate. (A spokesperson for Mr. Polanski confirmed that he has no involvement with the documentary.) She conducted on-camera interviews with nearly 100 people, including Samantha Geimer, the girl, now in her 40’s, with whom Mr. Polanski had sex and who has publicly forgiven him. Other interview subjects included figures connected with the director’s film career, among them Mia Farrow, Nastassja Kinski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne.
But considerable attention is reserved for Judge Rittenband, who was something of a legend in his own right, having overseen murder cases involving the so-called Billionaire Boys Club and Sarai Ribicoff, during his time on the California Superior Court. Ms. Zenovich sees both Mr. Polanski and Judge Rittenband as men who rose by force of will from humble roots. Mr. Polanski survived Nazi persecution and lost his mother in the Holocaust. The judge, from a less dire background, was a poor Brooklyn boy who, upon graduating high school at 15, bypassed undergraduate work for New York University Law School; he later attended Harvard, because he was too young to take the New York bar exam, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.
Ms. Zenovich describes the judge as having lived the kind of vibrant personal life easier to associate with Mr. Polanski. “He was never married, and he loved being kind of a swinging bachelor, juggling a couple of girlfriends at once,” she said. “What’s most interesting about him is that he tried to come across as so moralistic, but eventually I found out that this was a man who had a 20-year-old girlfriend when he was 54.”
In a rough edit of the film, Richard Brenneman, who covered the case for The Santa Monica Evening Outlook, recalls drafting an affidavit immediately after Judge Rittenband’s death, in which he documented his conversations with the judge in chambers: “Most specifically, how he asked me what sentence to impose on Polanski, which was illegal.”
In another clip the producer Hawk Koch recounts that his father, the late Howard W. Koch, recalled overhearing Judge Rittenband at the exclusive Hillcrest Country Club, where the judge was a popular member.
“One of the gentlemen at Hillcrest came up to Rittenband,” Mr. Koch tells Ms. Zenovich, “and said, ‘Are you really going to let that little Polish blah-blah-blah off?’ And Rittenband said: ‘Well, he thinks so, but no way. We’re going to put that little blank-blank away for the rest of his life.’ ”But Judge Rittenband certainly has his devotees, including his nephew, Elliot Rittenband.
“He felt an obligation and a duty to do what he felt was best, and he always stuck to it,” Mr. Rittenband tells Ms. Zenovich. Marsh Goldstein, one of the judge’s calendar deputies, recalls to Ms. Zenovich: “He was one of the most intelligent men I’ve run across — literate, well read, with a wonderful vocabulary, a wonderful way of quoting famous writers and philosophers in the course of your calling calendar.”
A key revelation, Ms. Zenovich said, came from the case’s retired prosecutor, Roger Gunson, who suggests in the film that Judge Rittenband acted improperly before Mr. Polanski decided to skip the country in 1978. At first all sides had agreed that the only sentence he should serve would be a 90-day psychiatric evaluation in prison at Chino, Calif. But when Chino authorities, fearing for Mr. Polanski’s safety, released him after 42 days, an infuriated Judge Rittenband called in both sets of lawyers and announced a new plan. He wanted to put Mr. Polanski back in prison for another 48 days or deport him, Mr. Gunson says in an interview with Ms. Zenovich.
Mr. Gunson also says the judge told the assembled lawyers how he wanted them to argue their sides of the case. Recalling that day in chambers, Larry Silver, one of the lawyers present — he still represents Ms. Geimer — tells Ms. Zenovich how he, Mr. Gunson and Mr. Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton, had afterward sat together in stunned silence. In all their years in the legal profession, Mr. Silver says, none of them had ever seen anything like that.
(Mr. Polanski’s defense submitted an affidavit charging Judge Rittenband with bias, prejudice and unprofessional conduct, and Judge Rittenband ultimately agreed to allow another judge to handle the case.)
Still, Ms. Zenovich said she was determined to create a balanced film, and her preliminary edit includes views from people who appear less concerned with whether Mr. Rittenband botched the case than with Mr. Polanski’s actions.
“This man committed a rape, committed a bunch of other atrocities and got away essentially with nothing,” says Philip Vannatter, a former Los Angeles police officer. “And I don’t think that’s right.”
Even from the unfinished film, it is apparent that Ms. Zenovich — who made an earlier documentary, “Who Is Bernard Tapie?” without the participation of its subject, the French financier and politician — has become intent, like documentary filmmakers before her, on using the form to delve deeper than the written word or television usually allow.
“A sense of truthfulness is like a drug that hooks you and won’t let you go,” said Barbara Kopple, the documentary filmmaker and two-time Academy Award winner, reached by telephone in her New York office, where, with Cecilia Peck, she is completing “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.” “Once you’ve seen it it’s hard to go back. I think that’s why the audience for documentaries keeps growing.”
For her part Ms. Zenovich said her feelings toward Mr. Polanski, as well as those of her mostly female crew, have vacillated in the course of their work.
“You love him one day,” she explained. “You hate him the next. I tell some people I’m doing this and they say: ‘That pedophile! That child molester!’ But all my research leads me to believe he’s misunderstood and endlessly fascinating.”