Rosemary’s Baby has been seen as eerily prescient, predictive, but in fact it looked back; Polanski already knew evil and horror, and specifically the horror of the giant covens of Nazi Germany and communist Eastern Europe. For just as the “banality of evil” can be reversed to the “evil of banality,” so “collective madness” can be reversed to the “madness of the collective,” and this is the true theme of this film. Rosemary’s Baby is about the glamour of evil, misogyny, the absolute unknowability of others, however intimate, and their potential for betrayal; but above all it is about the evil of ideologies, conformism, the inherent evil of joining in.
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The Nightmare of Collectivism
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is one of the most misanthropic films ever made, the first of Polanski’s trilogy of evil that continued with Macbeth (1971) and Chinatown (1975). Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow) take an apartment in the exclusive Bamford Building. They’re befriended by their eccentric elderly neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castavet, (Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon), leaders of a coven of satanists. Guy agrees for Satan to rape and impregnate Rosemary in exchange for his career being furthered. Rosemary, drugged on Minnie’s “chocolate mouse,” becomes pregnant after being raped by Satan at a black mass in the Castavets’ apartment, and Guy’s career duly takes off. Rosemary’s friend Hutch, murdered by the Castavets via sympathetic magic, alerts Rosemary, whose pregnancy has made her cadaverous and unhealthy looking, to what is going on, leaving her a book on witchcraft that reveals that Roman Castavet is the descendant of a notorious satanist. Rosemary escapes and seeks sanctuary with her previous obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), who betrays her out of professional fealty to Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), a famous obstetrician recommended by the Castavets but a member of the coven who, with Guy, takes her back to the apartment, where she gives birth. She’s told the baby died, but she hears a crying baby from the Castavets’ apartment through the partition wall. She walks in on the coven and finds her baby. Lifting the curtain on the crib, she is horrified by what she sees: goat eyes, tail, horns. However, she softens as he cries and she rocks the cradle, accepting Satan’s spawn as her child. The film ends as it began, with a swooping aerial shot of the Bamford.
Ira Levin’s source novel had been a huge bestseller the year before, and barely any dialogue was needed; most of what was in the novel was retained, unchanged. The late ’60s and ’70s was a golden age for popular literature, which provided much food for filmmakers, and Levin was one of its most successful practitioners (Truman Capote likened him to Henry James). The film, though, is a much richer experience because the story is also told visually and aurally. Production designer Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Anthea Sylbert (his sister-in-law and the subject of a coming documentary, My Way, My Rules) were as notoriously perfectionist as Polanski. Nothing in Rosemary’s Baby is left to chance; not a colour, costume, hem length, fall of light, or camera position is arbitrary, that is without signification, does not achieve psychological effect or contribute to cinematic and emotional impact. As Polanski once commented, “If you don’t attach extreme importance to every tiny detail, you’re just being lazy.” If Polanski wanted the two apartments where the action is mainly set to be characters, Krzysztof Komeda’s music, too, is a character in the film, functioning in part as a kind of abstract chorus.
Macbeth and Chinatown were both made after the unimaginably brutal murder of Polanski’s wife, her friends, and his unborn baby at their house on Los Angeles’s Cielo Drive in 1969 by Manson cult members, the event that was, according to Joan Didion, the official end of the ’60s. This tragedy feeds the darkness, cynicism, and misanthropy of those two films. But Polanski knew Chinatown well before Chinatown: the Krakow ghetto, Nazi-occupied Poland. Random murders on the street; children used by the SS for target practice. One of Polanski’s most vivid memories from the ghetto was of women being rounded up to be taken to Auschwitz, bewildered, terrified, suitcases in hand. How could this not have influenced the scene where a panic-stricken Rosemary runs away from Sapirstein’s office with her suitcase, dodging the traffic? Polanski’s pregnant mother was gassed in Auschwitz, and the child Polanski had been close enough to arbitrary murder on the Krakow streets to hear the gurgling of blood from bullet wounds. Polanski survived, escaped denunciation, by going under false, non-Jewish names. For Rosemary’s aghast “Witches, all of them witches,” read, “Nazis, all of them Nazis.”
So, the film has been seen as eerily prescient, predictive, but in fact it looked back; Polanski already knew evil and horror, and specifically the horror of the giant covens of Nazi Germany and communist Eastern Europe. For just as the “banality of evil” can be reversed to the “evil of banality,” so “collective madness” can be reversed to the “madness of the collective,” and this is the true theme of this film. Rosemary’s Baby is about the glamour of evil, misogyny, the absolute unknowability of others, however intimate, and their potential for betrayal; but above all it is about the evil of ideologies, conformism, the inherent evil of joining in. Like certain movements today, the hippy movement and ’60s progressivism were largely mimetic, fraudulent, opportunistic, and had misogyny at their core. Guy attends the black mass and betrays his wife but is not a believer. When we see the coven at Rosemary’s impregnation, what we observe is a bunch of swivel-eyed fanatics chanting slogans and showing obeisance to symbols.
Novelist Levin was Jewish but also had his finger on the pulse: by 1968, in the US there was an epidemic of drug addiction, teenage runaways, Vietnam and the Mai Lai massacre, random murders, a wave of political assassinations. White bourgeois terrorism swept across Western Europe; the victims of Stalinism had reached around 6 million and by the mid-70s those of Maoism would reach 75 million. In the UK and US, Wicca and the occult were in vogue amongst the middle classes. Young, white, bourgeois liberals in the US had begun to embrace gurus, pseudo-science, satanic and other cults, communes – often loci of male sexual opportunism – and, as in our present cultural moment, reality-denying, irrational beliefs and ideologies that reject rationality, science, and the Enlightenment: I can think of few other films that are timelier. The nihilist tenor of the times is well captured by a former Weather Underground (all privileged white, progressive academics) member’s admission that he was “looking forward to putting a bomb on the Chicago rail road at rush hour.”
Despite the misanthropy, the film is funny, not least because of the comic turns of Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet and Patsy Kelly as Lara Louise, the simple-minded witch in the apartment above. Like the other cranks of the coven, Minnie is clearly quite mad. The borders between madness, evil, stupidity, and credulity are porous, and there’s no doubt they have been the driving forces of history. Her performance is about the grim comedy of evil; the grotesque humour of horror has been exploited by many directors but none so subtly and with the political and philosophical import of Polanski, because he’s seen these grotesqueries played out, close up, in real life. History is farcical. However bloody and destructive, totalitarianism is funny, all slogans idiotic qua slogans, all placards preposterous. All cults and cult leaders, prophets and demagogues have something comic about them: that tan, that hair; Putin topless astride his horse; the frothing, gesticulating maniac Hitler; Mussolini’s ludicrous jutting chin. Wasn’t Manson also a pathetic, odd-looking clown, and the Manson trial a grotesque burlesque – those shaved heads, the absurd swastika tattooed on the forehead. And don’t all the ideas and beliefs that engender ideologies, which are basically cults, come eventually to seem preposterous: best get ahead of the curve and look at them all askance and recognise their essential interchangeability. There is not one that doesn’t, in retrospect, look like collective madness, and sometimes it takes less than a generation for them to be judged so.
The characters of Roman and Minnie also highlight another aspect of totalitarian ideologies: the function of nosiness, the loss of privacy, the spying. Nazi Germany and communist Eastern Europe were societies of denunciation, spying, informing, betrayal (including sometimes the filial, the spousal), formative of Polanski’s worldview, one based on the absolute precarity of trust and good. It also balances the genders, making the film more misanthropic than merely about misogyny, showing women as potential facilitators of male evil and violence. After all, more than 90 percent of those who denounced witches were women, housewives were the most enthusiastic Stasi informers, the Tate/LaBianca murders were ordered by Manson but carried out by female cult members, and it was not men who kissed the ground where Hitler had walked. (Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, the classic book about the male psychology of the interwar Freikorps and future Nazis, briefly holds open a door on an elephant in the room, stating toward its end that these men, these psychopaths, barely had any contact with their fathers and grew up in largely female households.)
Rosemary’s Baby is also archly satirical, and not just of the depths of show business ambition. The Woodhouses have a – probably unread – set of the socially prescribed books of radical chic of the time on their shelves (this has been a constant since the ’50s, only the titles change every generation). Guy is desperate for the shirt he’s seen in the New Yorker (he literally sold his soul to the devil for it), and Rosemary uglifies herself with a modish Vidal Sassoon haircut. This was very economical for Polanski; he could at once satirise the conformist nonconformity of liberal New Yorkers and visually reference the denuded humanity of the concentration camps – and the connection between the two. The conformist Woodhouses are already members of a cult of sorts, and in the end, because she gets what she wanted, a baby, Rosemary accepts evil. Polanski shows that it is the “educated” middle classes that are ripe for joining in, for extreme ideologies (again, nothing could be timelier), and that often enough it is not a matter of true belief but, as with Guy, pure careerism. Rather than being driven by “the masses,” all the ideological horrors, the mass killings of modern history, have been strictly bourgeois affairs; no peasant or worker has engendered a demented ideology or a foundational text for genocide; even the Khmer Rouge’s mass murderous war on the middle class was conceived and carried out by bourgeois intellectuals.
Anatomy of a Scene
Rosemary and Guy arrive for dinner at the Castavets. They met on the street the night before, part of the crowd surrounding the body of Teri, a young runaway and junkie the Castavets had taken in. She’d jumped from the Castavets’ window once she found out what they wanted her for.
As the Castavets’ apartment door opens, the film darkens; the scene is soft focus, and red dominates the palette. Up until now, yellow has predominated. Some have seen this as representing Rosemary’s sunny hope. Perhaps; but yellow is also the colour of madness, and it may also be a nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper,” the canonical psychological horror story of a woman being gaslighted by her husband. Roman’s sweater is bright red; he serves vodka blushes; the furniture, carpets, and book spines are all shades of red. It takes a very keen viewer to see on a first screening that there are marks of missing paintings on the wall – we’ll get to see those several scenes later at the black Mass where Rosemary is raped.
It’s our first close look at Roman without a hat; comparing pictures of actor Sidney Blackmer, it’s clear his eyebrows have been altered for the part to give him a devilish look. As they take their drinks, Roman spills a little vodka blush on the carpet and Minnie fusses over the stain. This has been generally interpreted as evincing her ordinariness, a point about the “banality” of evil. But in fact, it is deft characterisation. Minnie is in charge; She’s interested in power and control for its own sake, like any ideologue. In the previous scene we heard her termagant berating of Roman for letting Teri in on their plans too early.
Roman, a slightly pompous raconteur, moves over to an armchair, framed by two curtains, and talks of his theatrical past, his traveling: “Name a place, I’ve been there.” As in the rest of the film, the dialogue is loaded, proleptic. Next to his chair is a side table that splits the space in two; it is this space that will later be filled by the crib of the progeny of Rosemary and the Devil. Over dinner, after pouring scorn on organised religion, Roman obsequiously flatters Guy about his acting abilities, while Minnie gives him extra cake, like a favoured son. Flames, red meat, red wine, an antechamber of hell. Roman tells Guy that he has a “most interesting inner quality.” It’s a quality we’ve already seen: he’s an asshole. Clearly, Minnie and Roman are in luck, and as Minnie and Rosemary wash and dry dishes in the kitchen, Minnie questions Rosemary about her family’s fertility: “Oh, we’re fertile alright!” For a change, Minnie looks thoughtful.
We get a POV shot of Rosemary looking over at the entrance to the lounge: it’s a dirge of reds, running from the palest pink to the muted scarlet of an empty armchair (suggesting someone is missing or immaterially present) to the almost brown of the woodwork. The shot is held for about four seconds so that we get a sense of Rosemary’s curiosity, for Roman and Guy are deep in discussion but can’t be seen. Several times in the film Polanski frames a scene so that we cannot see the people speaking, the most famous example being that of Minnie taking a phone call with her head obscured by a bedroom door that had audiences leaning to try and look around the door.
A column of smoke crosses the screen from right to left – sinistrally. Guy and Roman smoking cigarettes, but that column is somewhat unnatural in its steady flow and horizontality. Obviously, the smoke signifies the satanic, smoke from the fires of hell. Like the lamps dimly lighting the apartment that glow malevolently like demon’s eyes, it signals the presence of Satan. On the mantlepiece directly above Guy’s head is a statuette of a winged goodness: Lilith or the demonic goddess Strzyga of Polish folklore. It seems not laboured to me but natural that Polanski had the columns of smoke from extermination camp crematoria in mind, which were after all also the fires of hell, in which his mother and unborn sibling perished. When Minnie and Rosemary enter, the men rise and both look serious, preoccupied, two masks briefly removed. Blackmer’s acting is extraordinarily subtle; he briefly has a look of utter cynicism on his face before he seamlessly reverts back to the dithering avuncular. A deal has been struck, and Guy has three new best friends, one of them horned, winged, and goat-eyed.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.