Gene Gutowski, a Polish American Holocaust survivor who produced three films that helped bring director Roman Polanski to international prominence in the 1960s and who reunited with him decades later for the Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” died May 10 in Warsaw. He was 90.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son, Adam Bardach.
The Gutowski-Polanski collaboration in the 1960s resulted in the 1965 psychological horror film “Repulsion,” starring French actress Catherine Deneuve, followed by “Cul-de-Sac” (1966) and “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967), films that brought Polanski to Hollywood.
Mr. Gutowski was the son of a cultured and assimilated Jewish family in eastern Poland but saw his youth shattered by World War II and the loss of his family in the Holocaust. Immediately after the war, he worked for U.S. military intelligence hunting Nazis in postwar Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1947.
An artist and sculptor, Mr. Gutowski worked as a fashion illustrator in New York before he took up film production. He led a jet-setting playboy lifestyle for many years that took him across Europe, to Hollywood and the Virgin Islands, with six wives and many lovers along the way, a life story he tells in a memoir known in English as “With Balls and Chutzpah: A Story of Survival.”
For several years, he was also was a consultant to Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, he returned to Poland, spending his latter years in Warsaw.
Mr. Gutowski and Polanski met in 1963, shortly after Polanski had made his breakthrough film, “Knife in the Water,” a Polish-language production that gained him acclaim and an Oscar nomination — but still no eager supporters for his next film.
At the time, Polanski was 30, lived in France and spoke no English. Mr. Gutowski, who was living in London, was hugely impressed by the talent of his fellow Pole and persuaded him to go to London and make a film in English, pushing for something “shocking” that would test the limits of the censors.
The result was “Repulsion,” with Deneuve as a woman whose creeping paranoia and estrangement from those around her explodes into disturbing hallucinations and acts of violence. Film critic Pauline Kael called the film — notably the scene of a man being slashed to death in his face with a razor — “excruciatingly tense and frightening.”
Mr. Gutowski was born Witold Bardach on July 26, 1925, in Lwow, Poland (today Lviv in Ukraine). He came from a family of lawyers, doctors, concert pianists and army officers, a family so assimilated that they celebrated Easter and Christmas and never attended synagogue.
After his mother was sent to the death camp of Belzec, young Witold knew that he couldn’t survive if he stayed in Lwow. So he made his way to Warsaw alone and struggled to survive by passing as an “Aryan.” His father was killed by the Germans, and his beloved younger brother, Roman, died when an uncle poisoned himself and the 13-year-old boy in the final days of the Lwow ghetto.
For a time, Mr. Gutowski worked for the Luftwaffe at Warsaw’s Okecie airport, stealing radio transmitters for the Polish underground — an activity that nearly got him killed.
When he was being hunted by the Nazis for stealing the radio equipment, he was given shelter by his Polish girlfriend’s mother. She provided him with the documents of a worker, Eugeniusz Gutowski, who had died in an accident.
After making a name for himself as Gene Gutowski, he never considered returning to his original name, although the youngest of his three sons, Adam Bardach, eventually took it. A filmmaker, Bardach has documented his father’s wartime experiences in a 2014 film, “Dancing Before the Enemy: How a Teenage Boy Fooled the Nazis and Lived.”
After their professional collaboration in the 1960s, Mr. Gutowski and Polanski parted ways professionally but remained friends. They eventually reunited to produce the 2002 film “The Pianist,” the wrenching Holocaust drama that mirrored the wartime experiences of both men. The movie earned Oscars for Polanski as best director, Adrien Brody for best leading man and Ronald Harwood for best adapted screenplay.
Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto and also survived by passing as a non-Jew, while his mother died in Auschwitz. He could not attend the Oscar ceremony because of an outstanding arrest warrant in the United States on a statutory rape charge.)
In 2014, Mr. Gutowski told the Associated Press that he and Polanski never discussed the war, saying he always felt it was a taboo topic. In his memoir, he also described denying his Jewish roots and distancing himself from other survivors.
“When on occasion I was asked point-blank by either Polish or Jewish former [concentration camp] inmates if I was Jewish, I would deny it, thus creating a duality of existence which I have maintained for most of my life,” he wrote. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. Through denying it, I have obviously tried to block off the past, the deep pain of losing my entire family and the subconscious guilt of being the sole survivor.”
He said making “The Pianist” was “a personal catharsis.”
“Watching crowds of terrified, helpless people being pushed into a train to the gas chambers recalled the last journey of my entire family in the summer of 1942,” he wrote. “And thus ‘The Pianist,’ a film crowned with three important Oscars, was also in many ways the crowning moment of my life.”
Survivors include his wife, Joanna Smaga-Gutowska; two sons; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
— Associated Press
Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.