10 Essential Roman Polanski Films You Need To Watch

6. The Tenant (1976)

the Tenant

The final installment of the “apartment trilogy” is the most underrated of the three. Much like Carol in Repulsion and Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) is confined inside of an apartment complex. Using this claustrophobic interior to express the perspective of the character, The Tenant is deeply unsettling as any hint of sanity that may have taken place diminishes completely. Polanski played the role because he felt no one else would understand the character better.

Trelkovsky moves into the apartment of a woman named Simone Choule who jumped out of her window and died. The tenants in the building are older and known to throw a fit over any sort of noise, suggesting Trelkovsky should follow suit of Simone who wore slippers after 10pm. Strange things start happening almost immediately after he moves in. He finds a tooth in the wall, there are people standing inhumanly still in the bathroom across the way.

At first these things seem merely bizarre, but as the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Trelkovsky’s mind is the one in question. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not, much like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. However, that’s what makes The Tenant so fascinating. Polanski dives into the abyss of Trelkovsky’s psychology as the former tenants identity begins to take hold of him.

This film is delusional and any sort of reality has been removed. If you’re looking to step into a nightmare with one of the most haunting and disturbing films of Polanski’s career, The Tenant is something worth checking out.


7. Tess (1979)

Tess film

Tess is a period drama based on the 1891 novel by Thomas Hardy called Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This is one of Polanski’s films that takes patience and open-mindedness. The filmmaking process was so intense that he stated he never wanted to make a film again after Tess. However in the end, it is one of the most beautiful pieces in his filmography.

Polanski dedicated the film to his late wife, Sharon Tate, who died tragically ten years earlier. It was she that gave him the book in hopes of starring in an adaptation someday.

Tess is about a young peasant girl (Nastassja Kinski) whose family finds out they have ties to an old, but wealthy family name. She is sent to live at the family home in hopes of earning money for her family. Ultimately, Tess’ cousin, Alec (Leigh Lawson) rapes and takes advantage of her. This moment in the film is the fate that changes her life.

While not as psychological or suspenseful as Polanski’s other films, Tess is a story of a young woman who is challenged within the confines of society. We, as an audience, follow Tess as she journeys through her circumstances of life, giving us an opportunity to engage with our emotions and heart.


8. Frantic (1988)

Frantic (1988)

Frantic is a thriller set in Paris starring Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife whom he married a year after filming). Ford plays Dr. Richard Walker, a heart surgeon whose wife goes missing almost immediately after they arrive at their hotel.

Polanski strived for no sets or extravagant costumes after making Pirates (1986). Therefore he settled for Paris, his home city, in hopes of making it look undesirable due to his dislike for American tourists (ouch). Frantic, more than Polanski’s other films, borrows many elements from the world of Alfred Hitchcock. Some of it is because of characters hanging off rooftops, but mostly because the very beginning sets up the film in the most subtle, yet suspenseful way.

The scene when Walker’s wife goes missing is worth seeing the film alone. He is singing in the shower and the camera stays there with him. His wife is in the room getting settled when the phone rings. She says something to Walker but he (and the audience) cannot hear her. Shortly after that she leaves the frame and never comes back. It is unsettling and sets up the rest of the film perfectly.

Frantic is thrilling and uses its drab color palette and congestive shot composition to keep us on edge, wondering where Walker’s wife is and why she is missing.


9. The Pianist (2002)

Adrian Brody The Pianist

Heartbreakingly the most personal film for Polanski due to his own experiences with the Holocaust, The Pianist is both realistic and cinematic. It feels like a documentary as the narrative advances, but at the same time evokes the kind of emotion you feel when watching a grandiose drama.

It’s the true story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s (played by Adrien Brody) life during World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland. The first scene sets up the rest of the film as he’s playing the piano for the radio and the station gets bombed. Wladyslaw refuses to stop playing regardless of the bombs and tries to endure.

It isn’t until he is knocked off his seat and falls to the ground that he stops playing. It is passion that drives this character as he trudges through a broken society in The Pianist. Throughout the film, Wladyslaw is surrounded by death and misery, but is able to persevere through it all.

The Pianist is a film that is hard to sit through because of its painful truth. It isn’t very often that you see a solider throw an old, paraplegic man outside of a window simply because he can’t stand up when told to. However, despite the films brutal honesty, it can be considered Polanski’s most beautiful film.

It is beautiful because it effortlessly immerses its audience into a history that Polanski wants people to know about. With this film he is vulnerable and transparent, allowing spectators to come into his own struggles as a man. That takes guts, and it pays off.


10. The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer is a political thriller starring Ewan McGregor who gets a job finishing the memoirs of former Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The catch: Lang is under investigation for a war crime and is accused of handing over suspects for torture by the CIA.

Not only that, but the previous ghostwriter mysteriously drowned by accident. The new unnamed Ghost falls into a puzzle to try and figure out if his predecessor’s death may have been due to some strange hidden facts about Lang’s career and relationship with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams).

Now it might sound like every other political thriller you’ve seen, but let’s give Polanski a little credit here. He takes some dark humor and mixes it with a mysterious pacing much like his 1999 film The Ninth Gate, and creates something new and enticing. The editing is almost too still, making you wonder what’s truly underneath the surface. It makes you wonder what isn’t being said. The atmosphere is eerie and cold and strange truths lead up to the very last (and quite genius) final sequence.

The Ghost Writer has cutthroat dialogue, smooth editing, and unusual characters. This is a film that allows you to immerse yourself into the mystery and come out satisfied.

Author Bio: Tessa is a 25-year-old cinephile who works at a video store. She’s keen on the works of Polanski, Wilder, Kubrick, Scorsese, Lang, Renoir, Hitchcock. As far as actor concerns, Daniel Day Lewis is the only person who matters to her.