Knife in the Water
Director: Roman Polanski
“Polanski’s work might be seen as an attempt to map out the precise relationship between the contemporary world’s instability and tendency to violence and the individual’s increasing inability to overcome his isolation and locate some realm of meaning or value beyond himself.”
J. P. Telotte, FilmReference.com
Roman Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, the son of a Polish Jew and a Russian Catholic. The family moved back to Poland just before the outbreak of WWII. Roman’s father survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, but his mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Polanski himself managed to survive with the help of a Polish Roman Catholic farmer. After years of sleeping with the cows, the war ended and Roman was reunited with his father.
Roman joined the five-year program at the Łódź Film School, where ten-hour days were the norm, and students attended classes every day of the year except Christmas, and they had to walk uphill both ways, in the snow. During his school years, he appeared as an actor in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation, and made several widely-acclaimed short films. In 1962, at the age of 29 (!), he released his debut full-length film: Knife in the Water.
One contemporary critic described it thus: “The weapons are glances, words (very few and always exactly chosen). Polanski is a holy terror of intelligent restraint––detached, ironic, playful as a cat with a mouse, encompassing with ease his alternations of the deathly serious and the dead-pan comic.”
Although the Nazis were long gone, Poland was now under the sway of the Commies, and Polanski’s brooding tale of sexual competition and (possibly) attempted murder was denounced as lacking a socially redeeming message. No matter; Knife in the Water was a huge critical and commercial success in the Materialist West, nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 (the first time a Polish film had ever been nominated), and guaranteed Polanski the funding to make plenty more of his creepy, perverse movies.
What else? Polanski moved to Hollywood, became friends with Bruce Lee, his wife was murdered by the Manson family, and he raped a 13-year-old girl. We don’t take kindly to such goings-on here in the U.S. of A., so now he lives in France.
A man and woman driving, their faces obscured. Titles appear over a jazzy porno score with sultry saxophone.
Only as the credits end do their faces become visible: a middle-aged rich European asshole (Andrzej) and his younger wife (Krystyna), sexy in librarian glasses. They look none too happy. They drive in tense silence. When they do speak, they argue, and we cannot hear them. They pick up a handsome (but apparently nameless) young hitchhiker, the catalyst for further argument, discord… AND MURDER! (not really)
Immediately, Young Hitchhiker (who I shall hereafter refer to as YH) begins to irritate the rich asshole; criticizing his driving, asking too many questions. The rich couple are headed to the marina, and, as required by the plot, YH is invited along for a weekend of sexual tension, male one-upmanship, and small-scale class warfare.
Love Boat soon will be
Making another run
The Love Boat promises
Something for everyone
Set a course for adventure,
Your mind on a new romance…
Later, it’s time for a snack. YH brings out some not-very-appetizing “black radishes” (?) and… you guessed it: a deadly-looking knife with which to eviscerate said radishes.
“Why do you carry that murderous thing?” asks Krystyna.
“A knife comes in handy,” replies YH. “Especially in the woods… Sailing’s easy. It’s when you hike that you need a knife.”
Andrzej mocks YH for his youth and his lack of sailing prowess, YH conspicuously yawns during one of Andrzej’s war stories, and it is so ON! Krystyna watches it all with detached amusement.
Andrzej, fearing loss of the upper hand, orders YH to coil some rope. This does not go over well with the blonde-haired hooligan, and he refuses. “If two men are on board, one’s the skipper!” hisses Andrzej. Tension is high. Krystyna adjusts her bikini.
When Andrzej charts a course for the becalmed waters of a canal, both men are forced to get out and tow the boat with ropes, which is a great opportunity for more chest-puffing and cock-comparing. Krystyna lazily shoos away a fly.
YH climbs the mast, and Andrzej threatens to kick his ass. Krystyna applies sunscreen.
YH pokes fun at Andrzej’s fancypants pot-carrying device, and Andrzej suggests that if YH is so smart maybe YH should try carrying the pot without the damn carrying device and see how he likes it and YH says fine maybe I will and he does, burning himself badly. “Stop being silly and eat your soup,” says Krystyna.
As expected in a film with two men and a sharp knife, a competitive round of mumblety-peg features prominently.
Krystyna floats languidly on an inflatable crocodile.
When Andrzej and Krystyna go for a swim, YH finds himself alone in the boat. The wind comes up and the boat sails away from the swimmers. Freak accident or half-hearted attempt at murder? We’re not sure. Only the herculean efforts of champion swimmer Andrzej (we have since found out that he writes for the Sporting News, further proving his manliness) reunite the couple with their boat.
Right on cue, the ship runs aground and a storm explodes overhead, forcing the uneasy trio to retreat belowdecks, the better to exacerbate the simmering tension. Undaunted, the two men find ever-more-ridiculous forms of competition: e.g. “I bet I can inflate this mattress faster than you!” Her back to the men, Krystyna conspicuously removes her swimsuit.
During a strange game of strip jackstraws (I was a little unclear on the rules), Andrzej listens to a boxing match on his iPod while Krystyna sings a song to YH. The lyrics are something about “love gone sour,” which I’m sure is entirely coincidental and not a commentary on her disastrous marriage to the perpetually scowling Andrzej. Also in the bizarre jackstraw-variant game, YH loses his much-fondled switchblade to Andrzej.
Early the next morning, Andrzej awakes to find his wife not beside him. He grabs for the knife. Instead of killing YH, though, he decides to just humiliate him by making him do menial boat-cleaning chores. “Where’s my knife?” demands YH. “Come and get it,” taunts Andrzej. I don’t want to give away too much, but the uh, Knife ends up, well, In The Water. After an awkward scuffle with Andrzej, so does YH, which is bad because he can’t swim (or so he claimed earlier).
“You’ve drowned him!” says Krystyna, finally roused from her middle-class anomie. “Phony! Clown! You only took him along to show off!”
During the ensuing marital meltdown, YH clings desperately to the hidden side of a nearby buoy.
When Andrzej dives in to search some more, YH makes it back to the boat (I guess he could swim, after all) just in time to see Krystyna starkers. But now where is Andrzej?
“You’re just like him,” Krystyna says contemptuously to the shivering YH, “only half his age and twice as dumb.”
“What do you know about life?” he retorts. “Just cafés, yachts and cars! Bet you’ve got a four-room apartment!” Zing!
Then there is some arguing about class and whatnot, though I was distracted by Krystyna’s bare legs and didn’t catch all of it. Krystyna and YH kiss hungrily. Andrzej still has not returned.
Krystyna pulls up to a lumber yard and sends YH on his way. She sails, by herself, back to the marina, where she finds Andrzej waiting.
She allows her husband to stew for a while before revealing the truth: YH is still alive. Andrzej does not believe her. “He’s alive,” she insists. “So much so, I cheated on you with him.” Still, Andrzej does not believe her. He stops the car in front of a road sign: “Police Station: 5km”
The engine idles. The car does not move.
And… fade out.
What I Liked
This is Polanski’s first film! It was released when Polanski was only 29! And yet, all of the hallmarks are there: simmering discord, creeping unease, social alienation, a gradually-increasing threat which may be real or imagined, all captured with cool detachment and black humor.
The most impressive thing about Knife in the Water is that it does so much with so very little. There are only three characters, in a limited space, and there isn’t much in the way of action, by which I mean: There are no helicopters, sharks, or shoulder-mounted plasma cannons. Tension simmers from the first frame to the last, but never erupts in quite the way you expect (or hope for). As the essay in the Janus book says, “Knife in the Water stunned audiences by eliciting its responses from constantly thwarted expectations… The film is nerve-wracking, but why? A threat lingers in the air… but where does it originate?”
All of the acting is excellent. Although Jolanta Umecka isn’t given much to do as Krystyna, she plays the final scenes, when she is finally (a)roused, with a wicked electricity. Leon Niemczyk is the embodiment of a rich, tanned, physically fit, jet-setting European businessman or politician, seething with contempt for the lower classes, flaunting his wealth, reeking of entitlement. And Zygmunt Malanowicz is note-perfect as Young Hitchhiker; painfully immature, alternately swaggering and wounded, boastful and then frightened. Every movement, every nuance of his delivery, every bit of business, rings true.
Finally, there is the cinematography, which is never flashy but which always finds an interesting way to frame a shot in the limited confines of the boat. As alliances and power shift throughout the film, the camera shows us this by framing one character in the claustrophobic foreground, and the other two characters aligned in the background.
What I Didn’t Like So Much
There were moments when the jazzy bass/piano/saxophone score seemed wildly inappropriate, be-bopping along happily while the film is trying to ratchet up the tension. I’m sure this was a stylistic choice by the director, but it didn’t work for me.
For much of the film, Krystyna is largely an attractive but useless spectator to the increasingly dangerous competition of the men. I’m sure part of this was intentional on Polanski’s part, but it also felt as if he just didn’t know what to do with her, didn’t know what a woman might say under those circumstances.
Should You See It?
Fans of Polanski in general: Yes. Enjoy an artfully mounted, slow-burning thriller and won’t be disappointed if no automatic weapons fire is exchanged? Yes. If the above description sounds interesting, but you’d be more interested if Knife in the Water featured flare-gun shootouts, slo-mo shots of children flying through car windshields, and naked Nicole Kidman: rent Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm instead. Actually, rent Dead Calm anyway. Knife in the Water is a better film, but Dead Calm is a hoot.
Next: The Lady Vanishes