DVD Review Of Knife In The Water

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/24/07


  Roman Polanski is at his best as a filmmaker when he focuses on the realist and small moments of horror in a human life. When he goes a bit overboard, and into the grotesque or surreal, such as in The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, Rosemary’s Baby, or Chinatown, his films tend to lose their way, even if still good. When his focus remains tightly on the real, such as in Repulsion or The Pianist, his films are amongst the best on screen. His very first feature film, 1962’s Knife In The Water (Nóz W Wodzie), is more in line with the latter films, and as such, is one of the best debut films in cinema history, and was even a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1963 Academy Awards, where it lost to Federico Fellini’s .

  Filmed in black and white, not long after Polanski finished film school, the 94 minute film features only three characters- not a single other actor, not even an extra, and is a taut psychological exploration of masculinity and testosterone. Yet, despite that, it’s a stretch to term the film a ‘thriller,’ as many critics have. There is very little action in the film, at least in a material sense. The real crux of the film revolves about the mental games that the two male characters play with each other, to impress the lone female in their group. In a sense, the film has much in common with many of the American television dramas of the 1950s, even though it was filmed on a real lake.

  The film opens with a married couple driving in the countryside, early one Sunday morning. They are headed to their boat on the lake. He is a fortysomething, dark-haired sportswriter and avid sailor, named Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), while his brunet wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), is a bit younger, nearing thirty, and at first seems a bit chunky and nebbishy, as she wears cat-like granny glasses. As the film progresses, she will appear more and more svelte and sexy, and it is this subtle evolution which seems to kick the two males into overdrive. The third character is a blond hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz), in his early twenties, whose name is never revealed throughout the film. Andrzej nearly runs him down on the road, then offers him a ride, seemingly to show off his prowess in front of his wife. He rides with them to the deserted marina, and is about to take off, when Andrzej offers to let him come on the trip on their sailboat, the Christine. After first declining, the young man accepts, stating he knew Andrzej would ask. This is his first upping of the ante, as he lets it be known that he is no naďf. Krystyna merely watches the two men tangle, early on.

  The film has Krzysztof Komeda’s jazzy soundtrack- which makes it feel a bit like an American B film from that era (such as Roger Corman’s The Last Woman On Earth), save that the screenplay and other technical aspects are much higher. By the film’s end, the light score give sway to a gloomier soundtrack, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The acting is quite good, although, in an interview on The Criterion Collection DVD, Polanski states that Umecka and Malanowicz were inexperienced actors (Polanski even dubbed Malanowicz’s voice with his own), while Niemczyk was the only pro. And this shows, and works to the film’s advantage, as Niemczyk’s professional assuredness helps highlight the difference between his character and Malanowicz’s. Yet, despite the manifest oneupsmanship between the men, there is also a more subtle simmering tension between husband and wife. The film starts off in the middle of an argument, when he takes over the driving from her, but the rest of the film portrays the malicious and passive/aggressive cracks in their marriage. The very fact that Andrzej invites a younger, studlier male to come with them is his almost daring his wife to try to prefer the younger man. He taunts the younger man with games and skills at sailing, and laughs when he fails. In retaliation, the nameless man pulls out a fancy knife, and performs the old parlor trick of quickly stabbing the knife between his and Andrzej’s outstretched fingers.

  A storm strands them on the lake overnight, and Krystyna and the blond youth bond in the morning, as Andrzej sleeps. They had first felt attraction the previous evening when they sang and recited poetry as Andrzej tuned out to listen to a boxing match on radio. Sensing something amiss, Andrzej picks a fight with the hitchhiker when he accidentally on purpose tosses his valued knife overboard (hence the film’s title). After a row, he sends the youngster into the water. Earlier, the hitchhiker claimed he could not swim, but Andrzej believes he is lying. Both husband and wife frantically search for him, but the hitchhiker can swim, and hides behind a buoy, thus gaining the advantage over his older foe. The couple swim back to the boat, and Krystyna prevents Andrzej from tossing the youth’s other possessions overboard, to cover up the ‘death.’ She then humiliates him into doing another search, and the two reveal the bile they hold for each other. Andrzej also fears that he will be charged with manslaughter. The hitchhiker swims back to the boat, and he and Krystyna flirt, then kiss, then have sex. Yet, she does so only to control the youth and spite her husband, for she reviles the hitchhiker for being from a different class than she is. She then drops him off near shore, and makes it back to the dock, where Andrzej is waiting, having swum to shore. The couple gets ready to drive home, and Andrzej is fearing having to report the youth’s death. Krystyna then tells him the truth, that the youth is alive and she cuckolded Andrzej with him. Andrzej does not believe her, or perhaps he does. Either way, she has now seized the upper hand over her conflicted spouse. At a fork in the road, with one way headed home and the other to the police, the car is motionless as the film ends in an ethical quandary, as Krystyna has come to dominate both men.

  The DVD package comes in two disks. The first disk has the film, but no commentary, although it does have a nearly half hour long interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski (the third co-screenwriter was Jakub Goldberg). There are also some production stills, but not even a theatrical trailer. There is no English dubbing of the film, and only rewritten subtitles by Polanski, but they are in Criterion’s standard white format, which bleaches out against the high contrast whites of a black and white film. Also, a significant portion of the film is untranslated, which means subtexts that a Polish speaker could get are lost on readers of the dialogue. And not all of the untranslated words are obvious things, like names or putdowns by one character to another. This is a major shortchanging of the audience by Polanski. The second disk’s features are also spare, and the whole package could have easily fit on one disk. Overall, the whole package is a bit of a disappointment. This second disk contains eight film shorts Polanski made between 1957 and 1962. They are Murder, Teeth Smile, Break Up The Dance, Two Men And A Wardrobe, The Lamp, When Angels Fall, The Fat And The Lean, and Mammals. One slight downside is that neither the fast forward nor rewind features work with this disk, but this was apparently a bizarre request made by Polanski, which detracts from the overall DVD package’s quality.

  Murder (Morderstwo) runs just over a minute, is silent, and shows a stabbing in a bedroom. Teeth Smile (Usmiech Zebiczny) is also about a minute long and silent, features a hot of naked breasts, and a leering Peeping Tom. Break Up The Dance (Rozbijemy Zabawe) is a very Roger Corman like scenario, and seven minutes long. Some thugs crash a party and cause havoc. It is the first short with sound and dialogue. Two Men And A Wardrobe (Dwaj Ludzie Z Szafa) runs fifteen minutes, is loaded with homosexual subtexts, and has a very Beckettian feel to it, as two weird men lug around a piece of furniture through various scenes- not unlike Laurel And Hardy’s famed film, The Music Box, including one where Polanski, himself, unconvincingly plays a tough guy who beats the men up, perhaps prefiguring his later cameo role in Chinatown. The Lamp is only seven minutes long, and plays out like a Polish episode of The Twilight Zone, where a doll maker’s shop houses dolls with a life. They come alive only once he leaves, and a mysterious force sets the building on fire as the inhabitants cry out in their doom. When Angels Fall (Gdy Spadaja Anioly) is the longest short, at twenty minutes, and is the first film to have any color in it. They come in flashback revery sequences of the life of the film’s protagonist, an elderly female lavatory attendant. It is probably the best of all the shorts, even in just the brief scenes of World War One, the only time Polanski ever referenced the World Wars in his work, until The Pianist. The Fat And The Lean (Le Gros Le Maigre) sees Polanski as barefoot slave to a fat man, and chained to a goat. It is a definite artistic step backwards from the three prior shorts, and runs about fifteen minutes. The final short is Mammals (Ssaki), and plays out against a stark , white wintry background, as two men argue over duties and who will pull their sled. It runs for ten minutes, and, while derivative of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, is better than The Fat And The Lean. It was also his last short before Knife In The Water was made, with the approval of the Communist regime in Poland.

  Knife In The Water not only is a preview of many of the obsessions that Polanski would return to throughout his career, but was remade, three decades later, as Dead Calm, Nicole Kidman’s film debut, which also starred Sam Neill and Billy Zane. But, that film was far more predictable and Hollywood than Knife In The Water. What separates Polanski’s film from such an inferior remake is his virtuoso composing of scenes. Given the place where most of the film takes place, the fact that he uses the traditional painter’s triangular composition of his characters serves as both inspired novelty and homage, as well as being in line, spiritually, with much of the New Wave filmmaking that was taking over European cinema at the time, with its quasi-documentary feel. Yet, Polanski also shoots many of the scenes from unexpected angles, which disorients a viewer. In one scene, we see the youth holding his finger up to the mast and closing one eye, then the other. Then we see the mast and finger switching relative positions, as if from his perspective.

  Another thing that sets the film apart from lesser works is that it was very cogent in its critiques of Soviet dominated Poland, yet it still works today at a more personal level. As example, in its day, there was a direct stab at the supposed classlessness of a Communist society, for the married couple are obviously well off Party apparatchiks- replete with a fancy car, yacht and apartment, who worry if their windshield wipers will be stolen, if they leave their car for a day. They are stolen, at film’s end, but even such a worry says much for the dire state of things in the Soviet bloc. The young hitchhiker is the common man, the young idealistic sort that totalitarian states despise, and a good deal of the tension between the men has to do not only with testosterone, but with class differences. But, it is the testosteronic tension that still resonates and carries the film today. Also, there is a Twilight Zone-like otherworldliness to this film that also resonates. After all, it’s a Sunday morning, there are many other boats docked in the marina, but only the three characters in the film are boating, as if they are occupying some usually unseen portion of an Apocalyptic film’s world.

  Knife In The Water is a quiet film, unlike showier Hollywood knockoffs, thus why it still works, and has not dated. It could be set in any part of the world over the last hundred or so years, for the setup is timeless, even if Polanski’s denouement is unique. If Andrzej wins, and the youth is really dead, there is the classic might makes right motif. If the youth dispatches Andrzej, then there is the classic father/son conflict, but if the film ends with all three surviving, and with the woman holding the upper hand in a conflicted state between the three, then the narrative has taken a turn toward realism and depth with strong claims to being great art. Polanski makes all the right choices in this film. That all the ‘action’ takes place in about a twenty-four hour period only heightens the intensity of the subtle gamesmanship on all three parties’ parts, and allows the narrative to be both naturalistic, yet also classically dramatic. When one can get ‘the best of both worlds,’ to such a degree, one is accomplishing alot, and Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water does that and much more. Would more art supply the ‘much more’ it often promises, works like this film would not surprise and delight the viewer to such a satisfying degree.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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