The Polanski film Death and the Maiden is a wonderful and intelligent interpretation of Ariel Dorfman’s human rights problem play. Polanski has produced, in this film, an exceptional piece of direction, in which his own personal, emotional input is evident. The main theme of the play is an extremely personal one for both playwright (and scriptwriter) and director. Both Dorfman and Polanski have had to face and flee the horrors of dictatorship and human rights violations: Dorfman in Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet, and Polanski in Poland under the Nazis. But despite this similarity in past experience, significant differences exist between the original play and the film. Apart from the specific techniques of lighting and composition, whose possibilities are greatly widened in the medium of film, we see differences in both the different emphases and implied viewpoints on the various themes that the play touches on and, perhaps more importantly, the way the characters are portrayed.
While the old concept of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger'; is present in both the play and the film (particularly in the characterisation of Paulina), it is much more prevalent in the movie. We can see Paulina’s strength from the start. As she strides confidently around the house and violently tears off a piece of chicken, the suggestion that she is unsuited to the domestic position which she has obviously been forced into by the side effects of her traumatic experience need not be made any clearer. Although possessing remarkable strength in both texts, the movie shows a much stronger, almost completely masculine Paulina. This Paulina has been almost entirely defeminized by her ordeal, physically, symbolised by the scarred breast and her desire to “adopt'; a child, which also serves as a glimpse of the vulnerable element of womanhood in her character that still remains. Throughout the bout of verbal jousting that goes on in the opening scene Paulina is able to hold her ground much more firmly than she appears to do in the play. In Polanski’s version of the scene she actually manages to use her domestic role to gain power in the argument, fiercely flinging the dinner in the bin. Weaver’s powerful acting conveys the unmistakable tension associated with an incredible amount of suppressed anger. I...
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...0;'; For all the rage contained in the film (significantly more than the play), and its portrayal of Paulina, there is a certain helplessness to the film, and a disturbing truth in its unresolved ending. One might argue that Polanski – in making Roberto give an overall much more genuine confession at the end of the film than Dorfman provides in the play – is falling into the Hollywood trap of offering a simple resolution to its many moral conflicts and thus making it accessible to a wider audience. I believe this circumstance serves a very important purpose, emphasized by its juxtaposition with the very last scene. It underlines this important impotence in the film’s ending: the fact that despite her having faced her demons Paulina has been permanently changed by her ordeal. And although she may have “…reclaimed [her] Schubert…'; in that she can now sit in a concert hall and listen to the music, the music will never be able to tell her the same things again. And even if Roberto is not there in person (as he is in the final scene) he will always exist as a vague presence, a “phantasmagorical'; shadow on her soul.
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