Polanski had travelled from his home in France to Switzerland to receive an honorary award at the Zurich Film Festival when he was held at the airport, festival officials said in a statement.
The Swiss Justice Ministry released a statement Sunday, saying the U.S. had been seeking Polanski’s arrest in various countries since 2005.
“There was a valid arrest request and we knew when he was coming,” ministry spokesperson Guido Balmer told The Associated Press. “That’s why he was taken into custody.”
According to Balmer, American authorities will have to issue a formal extradition request if they want Polanski returned to U.S. soil.
The director’s French lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France-Inter radio that it is “too early to know” if Polanski will face extradition.
“The proceedings must take their course,” Kiejman said. “For now we are trying to have the arrest warrant lifted in Zurich.”
It is still unclear why Polanski was arrested now, given that he regularly travels to Switzerland.
According to Balmer, the arrest of someone facing an international warrant is “automatic when you know when and at what time the individual is coming.”
Balmer denied that Switzerland was trying to appease U.S. officials, with whom Swiss authorities recently disagreed over tax evasion issues and concerns about Americans hiding money in Swiss bank UBS AG.
“There is no link with any other issues in question,” Balmer said.
France’s culture minister said Sunday that he was “dumbfounded” by the arrest.
Frederic Mitterrand said he “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them.”
According to a statement released by the culture ministry, Mitterrand is in contact with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “who is following the case with great attention and shares the minister’s hope that the situation can be quickly resolved.”
Polanski has lived in France since 1978, when he fled the United States after pleading guilty the year before to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.
The director, now 76, has asked a U.S. appeals court in California to overturn another judge’s refusal to throw out the case. Polanski has levelled allegations of misconduct at the original judge in the case, who is now deceased, saying he reneged on a previously arranged plea bargain.
Polanski was accused of raping the teenager during a photo shoot in 1977 at the home of Jack Nicholson, while the actor was away. The girl testified that the director gave her champagne and part of a Quaalude pill and proceeded to have intercourse with her despite her protests.
Polanski pled guilty to one of six charges, unlawful sexual intercourse. He was sent to prison for 42 days of evaluation.
Defence and prosecution lawyers were satisfied with the 42-day sentence. However, the judge tried to overturn the plea bargain, which would have meant more prison time and eventual deportation for the director, who chose instead to flee to France.
The victim, who identified herself publicly many years ago, has supported Polanski’s attempts to have the case dismissed.
Samantha Geimer, now 45, has said she would like to put the ordeal behind her. She previously sued Polanski for an undisclosed sum.
Despite the director’s arrest, the film festival announced that it will go ahead with a planned retrospective of his work.
Polanski was born in France, but as a child moved to Poland. He escaped Krakow’s Jewish ghetto as a child, but his mother died at Auschwitz.
He began his career in Poland, earning an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film in 1964 for his movie “Knife in the Water.”
His career in the U.S. began in 1968, when he directed “Rosemary’s Baby.” However, his Hollywood fairytale was cut short with the gruesome murder of his actress wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 at the hands of followers of Charles Manson. Tate was eight months pregnant when she was killed.
Polanski also directed the classic film, “Chinatown,” in 1974, and received a directing Oscar in absentia for his 2002 film, “The Pianist.”
He is married to French actress Emanuelle Seigner, with whom he has two children.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday that it has directed the French ambassador to Switzerland to help arrange a consular visit for Polanski as soon as possible.
According to the statement, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has told Swiss counterpart Micheline Calmy-Rey he hopes “Polanski’s rights (will) be fully respected and that the case would quickly result in a favourable outcome.”
CTV film critic Richard Crouse said the film community is shocked by Polanski’s arrest, but it likely won’t damage his career.
“It’s a real case of judge the art, not the artist,” he told CTV News Channel on Sunday.
“His filmmaking peers see him as an extremely talented but troubled man who was still doing good work.”
Crouse explained that Polanski has had a hard life filled with setbacks, but his career has survived through it. The director survived the holocaust as a child, but his mother was murdered in the Auschwitz prison camp. His wife, actress Sharon Tate, and their unborn child were murdered by followers of Charles Manson in a random attack in 1969.
Then in 1977, he pleaded guilty to sex with the 13-year-old girl and then left the country.
“Maybe if he’s extradited, finally we’ll be able to put this to rest once and for all,” said Crouse.
With files from the Associated Press.