Rosemary’s Baby: Cinematic Gestation of Trauma – Part One
By, Kristin Grady
Oscar winning film director Roman Polanski survived Poland’s Nazi occupation when he was a small boy. His pregnant wife was famously murdered by the Manson family. Since 1978, Polanski has been fleeing extradition for child rape charges (to which he pled guilty). Conscious effort or not, his real-life trauma has been channeled into some of the most moving cinema ever created. Rosemary’s Baby was Polanski’s first American film and remains one of his most renowned. Revolutionary for its time, the film explored themes of psychological abuse, women’s rights, religious criticism, and rape culture. Mysterious, shadowy visuals swaddle this tense thriller in a dark cloak of unsettling ambiguity. Almost as fascinating as the film itself, an eerily ironic web of violence has grown in its wake. Understanding such a complex art piece requires meticulous examination of the subtext hidden in dim corners and how that reflects the societal abuse of Polanski’s youth.
Escaping the Holocaust
Born Raymond Thierry Liebling in Paris, France, Roman Polanski’s parents were culturally Jewish, yet agnostic. When Nazis started evicting Jews from the family’s new home of Kraków, Poland, it was for a religion in which they did not believe. Both of his parents were led away to concentration camps, his pregnant mother perishing at Auschwitz. He only survived the Kraków ghetto after being adopted by Roman Catholics. Forced to learn catechism and deny his Jewish roots upon threat of capture, this early paranoid worldview shaped his film career.
After the war, he was reunited with his father, who changed their name to Polanski and remarried. During his teen years, driven by a deep need to escape the scars of his past, Roman dove into the extravagant fantasy of cinema. He attended film school in Poland and took a few acting roles before creating his first short film, Rower (Bicycle), based on a real life experience when his skull was fractured by a criminal who offered to sell him a bicycle. Rower was his first expression of processing childhood trauma into art. Rather than tackling the immense issue of the Holocaust, which robbed him of his mother, Roman turned this specific instance of violence into his first film, as if he had been waiting his whole life to do so.
Two more short films preceded Polanski’s first feature film “Knife in the Water”, a psychological thriller which earned him an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. Several features in France and England followed, before he wrote, directed, and starred in “The Fearless Vampire Killers”, a horror-comedy also starring his soon-to-be fiance, Sharon Tate. Nearing the completion of his Hollywood fantasy life, the young French-Polish director sought acceptance from the American film industry, barely a decade removed from Red Scare. Lured to America by Paramount studio head Robert Evans, ostensibly to direct a film about skiing, Polanski read Ira Levin’s novel “Rosemary’s Baby” non-stop overnight. He committed to writing and directing the film adaptation for Paramount.
Page to Screen
The psychological horror story centered around protagonist Rosemary Woodhouse, moving into a mysterious new apartment with her husband Guy. A coven of witches conspires to have her raped and impregnated by Satan. Clever and observant, Rosemary notices strange details like missing pictures, singing through the walls, and the vague recollections of the rape. Her suspicions are quickly dismissed by her husband, neighbors, and doctor. Pregnancy is inherently anxiety-inducing and the sinister satanic plot is fun in a Halloween costume kind of way, but the most frightening part of the film is the gaslighting. Nothing makes fear worse than denying its existence.
Ira Levin poured all of his anxiety about his wife’s pregnancy into the book and added religious themes that turned the story of the Virgin Mary on its head. Polanski wanted to cast his fiancee, Sharon Tate, as Rosemary, but the studio insisted on Mia Farrow due to her popular role on the television show Peyton Place. Waifish Farrow added to Rosemary’s “wasting” appearance, accentuated by deeply shadowed makeup. In a few scenes, she resembles a concentration camp victim, perhaps a projection of Polanski’s mother. The film was a threat to Mia’s recent marriage to Frank Sinatra, who served her divorce papers on set for choosing the lead role over a part in his movie. The young actress delivered a vulnerable, yet tenacious performance as Rosemary, despite an inexplicable accent that certainly wasn’t from Omaha, Nebraska.
The film is full of loaded visual metaphors for processing trauma. A diverse color palette evokes moods of yellow happy hopefulness, varying green shades from growth to greed, and striking blood red, representing violence and rape. Light, shadow, elegant costume coordination, and a haunting original score compose this compelling story of a woman resisting the gaslighting culture of 1960’s gender roles. In addition to cementing several Hollywood careers, Rosemary’s Baby was a box office hit and received universal acclaim from critics, with the exception of religious fanatics who misinterpreted the film as pro-Satan. Ira Levin said he later regretted putting the satanic mindset out into our culture, which can be supported by the ripple effect of demonic-themed films to follow. Besides the devilish legacy imposed on American cinema, those involved in the film’s creation have experienced real-life tragedies that rival any Hollywood movie.
On August 9th, 1969, eight-and-a-half month pregnant Sharon Tate spoke to her husband on the phone for the last time. Differing accounts say they argued over Roman’s delayed departure from London. They may have discussed his upcoming birthday party. Later on, Polanski portrayed the conversation as heartwarming “She said a little kitten had come in from the hills and she was trying to feed it with an eye dropper,”
Was he triggered by the recent production of Rosemary’s Baby, thus avoiding the real-life uncertainty of pregnancy? At what point in her pregnancy was his mother taken to Auschwitz? Like Rosemary, his survival mechanism had always been denial. He survived the Kraków ghetto by denying his Jewish identity. The impending baby, the party, his newfound indoctrination to the cult-like levels of Hollywood film production, and the prospect of facing his demons once he’s “settled down”… All these factors may have kept Roman in London, away from his young, vulnerable pregnant wife. Tate was looking forward to settling down.
Cult members of the Manson family broke into the now famous Cielo drive house after midnight and murdered everyone. Details of this revolting crime have been splattered all over pop culture for decades, but one correlation always seems to slip through the cracks. Polanski made a movie about a pregnant woman being tortured by a cult and that ended up happening to his wife less than a year later. It is simply one of the many tragically ironic coincidences that followed this film. On some level, Polanski must have felt it was a metaphor for selling his soul to the devil, and the devil came to collect. His art had manifested into a real-life Faustian tale.
Sharon Tate is buried with her son in her arms.
The bizarre correlations don’t stop there. It’s a little freaky to find out that Mia Farrow studied meditation in India with the Beatles and the song “Dear Prudence” is about her sister. Now think about the fact that Manson used The White Album as part of his racist, violent manifesto. One of the murder victims was Rosemary LaBianca. John Lennon was shot outside of The Dakota, which was the set of… Rosemary’s Baby. It was the same spot as where Adrian Marcato was gunned down in the book/movie. This kind of Twilight Zone-level irony challenges even the strongest skeptics to explore the possibility of curses.
The media sensationalized the gory truth of the murders, constantly confronting Polanski with the violence he had been fleeing his whole life. His first post-murder film was a Playboy-produced adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a story full of violence, thirst for power, conspiracy, and child murder. 1974’s Chinatown also centered around a political conspiracy, to control the public water in Los Angeles, and a woman keeping a rape secret. Polanski played a role in the film, the gangster who slashes Jake’s nostril. He wanted to give the character a permanent scar on his face because Roman was publicly scarred by the Manson murders. Those wounds were on top of his crippling Holocaust memories.
Polanski’s internalized anguish eventually manifested into a series of child rapes, only the last of which he was prosecuted for. At least five other women have accused the director of rape. On March 11th, 1977, 13-year-old Samantha Gailey was raped by Polanski at the home of Jack Nicholson. Polanski was arrested the next day and pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor”, serving 42 days of a 90-day court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. Upon learning the judge was going to reject his plea bargain and sentence him to 50 years, Polanski fled to France and has been avoiding extradition since 1978. Gailey sued him for damages in the 1990’s and he was forced to pay off the settlement, but she has since expressed forgiveness toward him.
Is it ever wrong to extend sympathy to a Holocaust survivor? Feels okay to never forgive a rape. Being in denial about it certainly makes the elephant in the room seem that much larger. Polanski won the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, a heartbreaking true story of a talented musician living a Nazi-occupied ghetto similar to his youth. Harrison Ford had to accept the award for him. Everyone wore a strained smile, painfully aware of the fact that Polanski could not show up, as he was still fleeing extradition for rape, over thirty years later.
A lot of Polanski’s films have unsatisfying endings. All of his protagonists seek out the truth, challenge powerful entities, and expose subversive plots. After decades of making award-winning films, Polanski was recently expelled from the Academy in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The legacy of his work is being dismantled because it is built on flimsy denial. His victim requested the dismissal of the case, he has paid the settlement, and expressed remorse (although he also said “Everyone wants to fuck young girls!”), but Polanski has not paid for his crimes. Dismissal of the case doesn’t erase the rape. It would be a terrible shame if the soon-to-be 87-year-old director died without giving that resolution to his victims… And himself. His children would be forever associated with a man who never faced his fear. The only way to avoid that shameful fate is to turn himself in. Roman Polanski should take the towels down and unlock his own secret door.