For more than two and a half years I have been working almost continuously with the director Roman Polanski, first on a screenplay of my novel “Pompeii” — which was never made — and then on a movie of another of my books, “The Ghost,” which was shot earlier this year. I have never collaborated with anyone more closely.
So when, just before lunch on Sunday, the news broke that Mr. Polanski had been arrested overnight at the Zurich airport on an outstanding warrant relating to a conviction for sex with a minor back in the 1970s, my first response was to feel almost physically sick. Mr. Polanski has become a good friend. Our families have spent time together. His daughter and mine keep in regular touch. His past did not bother me, any more (presumably) than it did the three French presidents with whom he has had private dinners, or the hundreds of actors and technicians who have worked with him since 1977, or the fans who come up to him in the streets of Paris for his autograph.
My second response, when the shock wore off, was to wonder, why now? I have worked several times with Mr. Polanski in Switzerland, where he owns a house in Gstaad. He travels back and forth from France a dozen times a year. If Mr. Polanski is such a physical danger and moral affront to civilized society that he must be locked up, even at the age of 76, why was he not picked up earlier, when he was 66, or 56 — or even 46? It would not have been hard to grab him at his home: his name is on the doorbell.
To answer this question the Los Angeles County district attorney, Stephen L. Cooley, has issued a “timeline” purporting to show the numerous efforts made by his office to have Mr. Polanski arrested. In fact it reveals precisely the opposite: how half-heartedly the case has been pursued since 1978, when Mr. Polanski fled the United States. On only five occasions — right at the outset, when he flew to London; in 1986, when it was rumored he might visit Canada; in 1988, when it was suggested he might be headed to Brazil, or elsewhere in Europe; in 2005, when he went to Thailand; and in 2007, when he visited Israel — do overseas authorities seem to have been contacted by the district attorney with specific information about his presence. This is hardly a red-hot manhunt.
Mr. Cooley’s office maintains that Mr. Polanski’s visit to the Zurich Film Festival over the weekend was different. It offered a unique opportunity to seize him, the office says, because officials knew for the first time precisely where he would be, and when. But Mr. Polanski was always heading off to film festivals and award ceremonies when I worked with him. To take only one example, his appearance at the Turin Film Festival last November had been advertised across the Internet since the February before. In other words, the district attorney had nine months’ notice of where he would be and when.
So it seems fair to deduce that the capture of Mr. Polanski — who has never been accused of similar offenses before 1977 or since — was an understandably low priority for the California criminal justice system, a system so short of money, that a court ordered it to release 40,000 convicts early because of prison overcrowding.
I suspect that this peculiar standoff — of sporadic, bureaucratic twitchings to remind the world that Mr. Polanski was still a fugitive, but no serious attempts at arrest — would have continued had it not been for Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” As it happens, I was with Mr. Polanski — in Switzerland, in fact — last year when the documentary was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival. We were having dinner when Mr. Polanski’s agent, Jeff Berg, rang to say he had just seen it. He conveyed good news: the film was unexpectedly favorable to the director, revealing just how bizarre had been the judge’s handling of the original case.
For Mr. Polanski, this was a moment of triumph. However, by a terrible irony, it was also at this moment that the seeds of his present predicament were sown. He thought he could settle the matter at last, and his subsequent, vigorous legal attempts to have the case against him closed — supported, remarkably, by his victim, Samantha Geimer, the one person who comes out of this affair with her dignity enhanced — clearly infuriated Mr. Cooley. Legal authorities the world over loathe being publicly criticized. After the arrest was announced, Mr. Cooley declared that Mr. Polanski “has been trying to get it resolved on his terms, but it’s going to be on the terms of the Los Angeles County justice system.”
It sounds very much as though Mr. Polanski became overconfident, both in the rightness of his own cause and in the safety of Switzerland as a refuge — a country that after the credit crisis suddenly seems to be much more eager to cooperate with international authorities. Its volte-face on its famous guest has drawn understandable contempt and Mr. Polanski, in his cell, now has plenty of time to ponder the limits of Swiss hospitality.
I make no apology for feeling desperately sorry for him. The almost pornographic relish with which his critics are retelling the lurid details of the assault (strange behavior, one might think, for those who profess concern for the victim) makes it hard to consider the case rationally. Of course what happened cannot be excused, either legally or ethically.
But Ms. Geimer wants it dropped, to shield her family from distress, and Mr. Polanski’s own young children, to whom he is a doting father, want him home. He is no threat to the public. The original judicial procedure was undeniably murky. So cui bono, as the Romans used to say — who benefits?
Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland and, most recently, The Ghost.