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Roman Polanski Returns to Scene of 2009 Arrest

Roman Polanski
Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images

The director is experiencing a career rebound two years after he was taken into custody at the Zurich Film Festival, where he receives a lifetime achievement award Tuesday.

Around this time in 2009, an unsuspecting Roman Polanski flew to the Zurich Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement award. He didn't get farther than the airport. Swiss police arrested him on a U.S. warrant from 1978, when Polanski fled the country after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. What followed was months of house arrest, a long extradition battle and a media circus. It ended, as it began, with Polanski a free man.

Now, the Oscar-winning director is picking up where he left off. On Tuesday, Polanski, 78, will fly back to Zurich to receive his award and accompanying adulation. The festival will follow the tribute with the world premiere of a "secret" documentary. Zurich organizers are keeping things hush-hush, but it's thought to be Marina Zenovich's follow-up to Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the 2008 doc that reignited interest in his case.

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There's little danger history will repeat in Zurich. A Swiss court freed Polanski on a technicality -- it said it didn't have enough evidence to justify extradition. But unless Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley agrees to give confidential testimony about Polanski's sentencing procedure in 1977-78, which he has repeatedly refused to do, the Swiss are unlikely to change their minds. Cooley, through a spokeswoman, declined comment, other than to remind Hollywood that Polanski is a fugitive and a warrant remains out for his arrest.

It is easy to forget, but before his arrest put him back in the headlines, Polanski had slipped off most people's radar. His most recent film at the time was 2005's Oliver Twist, a box-office flop in the U.S. ($2.1 million domestic gross) that performed better overseas but divided critics. The buzz on The Ghost Writer, which he was finishing when he was arrested, was minimal. Distributors worldwide worried that news of the scandal would drive audiences away. Polanski's next project, an adaptation of the hit play God of Carnage, looked dead in the water.

What a difference two years makes: Ghost Writer premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and went on to gross $60 million worldwide, and Polanski was able to recruit a cast that includes three Oscar winners -- Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz, plus John C. Reilly -- for Carnage, which premiered Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival to the best reviews Polanski has seen since 2002's The Pianist.

Polanski's rehabilitation began almost as soon as the news of his arrest broke. While the conservative talk-show circuit was calling for him to be brought back to the U.S. in chains, filmmakers were petitioning for his release. Polanski was still under house arrest when Ghost Writer won the best director prize in Berlin. Then it swept the European Film Awards -- a clear sign of solidarity among the director's colleagues. With Carnage wowing Venice and a planned awards campaign from Sony Pictures Classics tied to its December U.S. release, Polanski's comeback is complete.

Cooley has said if a "cooperative jurisdiction" arrests Polanski, his office might again seek extradition. But for now, Polanski is back on top. Many predicted the 2009 arrest would mean the end of his career. Two years on, the helmer returns to Zurich head held high.

Ennio Leanza/EPA/Newscom

POLANSKI AT THE BOX OFFICE: Worldwide grosses for the filmmaker's top 5 movies

  1. The Pianist (2002): $120.1 million
  2. The Ghost Writer (2010): $60.2 million
  3. The Ninth Gate (1999): $58.4 million
  4. Oliver Twist (2005): $42.6 million
  5. Rosemary's Baby (1968): $33.6 million