Separating Art from Life

In the science fiction masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, a character asks the question “Is all the world a war of good and bad? Have you not thought it could be something more?” The young protagonist, to whom the question is posed, is struck dumb. He had always assumed that in fact the concepts of good and bad are quite black and white, but of course this is not always the case.

As we say goodbye to 2020, a year that for the most part was just bad, our culture continues to struggle with this question. We crave heroes and villains, not just in our popular entertainments, but also in our politics and culture. There is little room for ambiguity or the possibility that someone can be both good and bad.

An excellent example may be one of the best movies of 2020 that none of us have seen and aren’t likely to for quite some time. An Officer and a Spy, directed by Roman Polanski, has received many accolades but no distributor in the United States. You can’t see it in theaters or streaming services.

Polanski has been a pariah for years in the US because he fled the country after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, and yet his films have been shown here. What is different is that Polanski has been accused of sexual misconduct by 6 more women since 2019. Since #MeToo, society has been less willing to forgive such crimes.

To add to the complexity, An Officer and a Spy is about the infamous Dreyfus affair, when a French Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason. The case rocked French society and inspired the modern Zionist movement in Theodor Herzl when he covered the story for a Viennese newspaper. Polanski explicitly compared his legal situation to that of Alfred Dreyfus. In his mind he has been unfairly tarnished by accusations he considers false.

Many would disagree with Polanski about his situation. While Dreyfus truly did nothing wrong, it is quite clear that Polanski acted inappropriately. So with such a glaring blind spot, can he create a compelling movie about injustice and the way that society searches for villains to destroy? Although I haven’t seen the film, apparently the answer is yes, he can.

Things would be simpler if An Officer and a Spy was simply bad. The narrative would be that Polanski cannot separate himself from the work and therefore fails to tell a persuasive story. Instead, it is us, the viewers, who are forced to grapple with the question of separating the man from his work. Should we watch a movie about truth and justice created by a sexual predator?

There is no easy answer when the subject matter is modern anti-Semitism and the way that societies look for scapegoats to destroy. These are important themes for all of us to grapple with. There is indeed something more than the war of good and bad, and it is up to us to see the ambiguity not only in others but in ourselves as well.

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