Thursday Editor’s Pick: Knife in the Water (1962)

by on September 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Sept 8 at 8:00 & Thurs Sept 22 at 4:00 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


MoMA tips their hat to Roman Polanski in a comprehensive series running Sept 7th thru 30th (the night of the premiere of his new film Carnage, opening the New York Film Festival). We kick off our coverage of the series with his breakthrough film.


David Denby for the New Yorker:

A savage and cynical journalist (Leon Niemczyk), about forty, and his young, hard-bitten wife (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a reckless student (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and take him aboard their little yacht. The men get into nasty competitive games, with the woman as the prize. “Knife in the Water,” Roman Polanski’s first feature-length film (screening at the Pioneer Theatre on May 29), made in Poland in 1962, when the director was still in his twenties, is remorseless in its view of life and ineffably beautiful as a piece of filmmaking. Polanski has never done anything more fluent or skilled: his attention to such things as mood and gesture and the altering landscapes of wind, rain, and water is the work of a virtuoso. He stages complex movements and maneuvers in a tight, perilous space, building up erotic tension to an almost unbearable pitch. The tension is never truly released: sex is no more than a ploy in a world in which no one who is weak, or even decent, could possibly survive. You can see how postwar Poland formed Polanski, and also why he had to leave.


Matthew Clayfield
for Senses of Cinema:

With its oblique but unrelenting psychological violence, politically charged nihilism and incisive visual forms – the images in this film, like the knife of its title, will cut you if you get too close – Roman Polanski’s Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) is not only one of the filmmaker’s best films, the only feature he made in his home country and native tongue before emigrating on towards fame and infamy and back towards fame again, but also one of the most enervating treatises on human relationships committed to celluloid.


Clayfield continues:

With only the most perfunctory dialogue on hand to communicate the occasional hint of character, back-story or emotion (Polanski and his co-screenwriter, Jerzy Skolimowski, deliberately pared back the dialogue as much as possible), the film’s sounds and images are charged with conveying – with reifying – the bulk of its thematic and emotional content. Along with the film’s deceptively genial free jazz score, which lulls the viewer into a false sense of security at precisely those moments when the relationships between the characters take another irrevocable turn for the worse and the whole film slides a little closer to its unavoidably unpleasant conclusion, Polanski’s use of the boat, as both a sign (of wealth, privilege and, especially, power) and a space (of isolation and claustrophobia), is integral to the overall success – or at least to the wonderfully unsettling mood – of the picture.


As a space, Polanski’s boat demands tightly-packed compositions and configurations of bodies, particularly inside the cabin with its restrictive physical dimensions. Often, all three characters appear in the frame together, one of them closer to the camera than the others, the space between them negatively charged with the absence of all empathy and goodwill. The centre of the image feels like it could freeze over at any minute, even when the characters are interacting in a seemingly reasonable, civil fashion. Outside the cabin, where the camera has more freedom to move, Polanski nevertheless continues to reinforce the claustrophobia (and paranoia?) of the characters with these three’s-a-crowd framing devices and oppressive close-ups (although there are fewer here than in the interior scenes). The physical claustrophobia of the characters is thereby reframed as a psychological one that they carry with them into the open, and the imposed visual logic of the cabin, the frames-full-of-bodies which actualise this pathology at the level of the image, becomes the overriding visual logic of the film.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Polanski’s first feature, a model of economic, imaginative film-making which, in many ways, he has hardly improved upon since. The story is simplicity itself: a couple destined for a yachting weekend pick up a hitch-hiker, and during the apparently relaxing period of sport and rest, allegiances shift, frustrations bubble up to the surface, and dangerous emotional games are played. Like much of Polanski’s later work, it deals with humiliation, sexuality, aggression and absurdity; but what makes the film so satisfying is the tenderness and straightforward nature of his approach. With just three actors, a boat, and a huge expanse of water, he and script-writer Jerzy Skolimowski milk the situation for all it’s worth, rarely descending into dramatic contrivance, but managing to heap up the tension and ambiguities.



Alt Screen’s Nathan Lee for the New York Times:

A slightly perverse anti-feature… Perversity is, of course, a characteristic of Mr. Polanski’s films — so, too, the inability to escape… almost everyone in the Polanski oeuvre is abandoned, trapped or sequestered in one way or another. And so it is with the three protagonists of ”Knife in the Water,” his tremendously assured 1962 feature-film debut. Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a hitchhiker, the strapping Young Man (Zygmunt Malanowicz). After the couple extend an obscurely motivated invitation to this seductive unknown quantity, everyone climbs aboard a sailboat named ”Christina.” Before anyone disembarks — and not necessarily at the dock — violent impulses surface amid much tension and innuendo.


Once the three are adrift, the psycho-sexual triangulation is pulled taut. Andrzej gibes at his young rival and Krystyna subtly transforms herself from homely wallflower to skipper vixen. The mind games begin long before the drifter brandishes his phallic blade. What to do all cooped-up at sea? Knife-throwing, hide and seek, pick-up-sticks and several humiliating variations on fetch: ”Knife in the Water” ritualizes tension into game playing.


‘We were obsessed with making the dialogue as short as possible,” one of the film’s writers, Jerzy Skolimowski, says in [the Criterion dvd’s] video interview. ”By one word, by the syllable.” Indeed, of all Mr. Polanski’s intensely concentrated thrillers, ”Knife in the Water” may be the sharpest.


Tom Hall for Indiewire:

It is at the very moment when the sailboat leaves shore that Polanski begins to soar as a Director, combining tense, claustrophic camera work in a very small, confined space (basically the deck of a two person sail boat) with stunning, fluid shots of the action on board and in the water. One shot in particular, a close up of the young man at the stern of the ship which suddenly peels off as the boat turns away from the camera, is more thrilling than anything you’ve seen in a long, long time. Another, featuring the young man laying Christ-like on the deck, his head encircled by a coil of rope, evokes Catholic iconography and painting with delirious beauty. Of course, this being a Polanski film, the thrills aren’t simply visual, and the film drips with sexual tension as Andrzej’s mastery of the boat is challenged by the potential danger of the young man’s titular knife. As Andrzej humiliates the young man (an inept sailor who has never been on a boat before) and seeks to keep his wife’s attentions from the younger, more attractive drifter, the competition heats up and things get dangerous.


At the center of Polanksi’s film is the deeply rooted desire for sexual mastery in both men, the need to assert their sexual dominance over the other in order to assure themselves that the unknowable, sexually mature Krystyna can be convinced of their worth. When the young man’s knife (his source of self-assuredness and a survival tool for him) falls into the water, the entire equation (that is, Krystyna’s affection and attention) is suddenly thrown up for grabs as the men are literally lost at sea. It is in this moment that the locus of the film shifts and Krystyna is allowed to assert her own desires (and to take over the boat and guide both men to safety), and she fufills her need to punish Andrzej for his refusal to allow her her rightful place in the relationship (see the film’s opening shot, when Andrezj forces her to stop driving the car so that he can take over. Always a big mistake). When Krystyna allows the young man to make love to her, she re-establishes his lost confidence, gains revenge on her braggart of a husband, and proves to be the film’s most powerful figure, a woman among boys, assuredly earning the last word in domination.



Brian Eggert with some background, for Deep Focus Review:

Each of Polanski’s short films dealt with human interactions on intimate, often one-on-one terms, so it made sense that his first feature-length film would contain only three characters. Polanski and co-writers Jerzy Skolimowski and Kuba Goldberg worked on the script for Knife in the Water for three weeks non-stop before submitting a draft to the ministry of culture. Skolimowski, another graduate of the Lodz Film School, encouraged Polanski to reduce the period of the story to a tight 24-hour expanse, helping to exaggerate the intensity of the emotions and heighten the tensions from scene to scene. The same story drawn out over a number of days would be melodramatic, but limit the characters to a few hours together, and suddenly the story becomes a venture whose embellishment serves a specific purpose worthy of the audience’s deliberation. Polanski later told The New York Times in a 1971 interview for his bloody interpretation of Macbeth, “What I like is a realistic situation where things don’t quite fit in.” Very little ever feels right in a Roman Polanski film.


Deemed of “thematic concern” and “questionable moral value” by the ministry of culture, Polanski was given a year to complete recommended changes, after which he could resubmit the script for approval to produce. Among the changes needed were general toning down of the sexuality—the physical relationship between the husband and wife characters, and the lack of clothing, despite the story’s necessity for bathing suits, given the location. Additionally, the ministry wanted an overall social value, some lesson the audience could walk away with. Polanski submitted a revised script in 1961 with a few “socially committed” lines that he would later refer to as “bullshit” demanded by the ministry. In the face of these changes, Polanski’s finished film would still play like a scornful blow to Polish cinema of the era, as any required social content recedes when placed next to the crackling elements of his psychological thriller.


Fernando F. Croce:

The sailboat is the ideal setting for the sardonic worldview (one-upmanship surrounded by an undulating void), Roman Polanski is unmistakably the cunning hellion playing with a blade on the deck (“I’ve got a delicate touch”). A disinterested kiss summarizes the state of the couple’s marriage, he (Leon Niemczyk) takes over the wheel en route to the lake, she (Jolanta Umecka) is blank but for a tiny, curled smile of irony. The sexy young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanawicz) completes the composition. The drive to the boat is a terse preamble, the weekend cruise is an insinuating exploration of Antonioni’s nautical lenses in L’Avventura. The subtle, wry phallocentric competition pits the husband’s materialist smoking pipe against the wanderer’s carefree knife: The skipper’s maps and compass don’t impress the sailor, the bikini-clad figure of the wife splashes amusedly in the background between them. At times the characters have an air of apocalyptic-survivor lostness, at others they perversely suggest some Holy Family (an overhead view from the mast frames the sunbathing Malanawicz with outstretched arms and a coiled-rope halo, cavorting on his invisible cross). Rain sends the trio below the deck, where Polanski’s close study of Welles (The Lady from Shanghai in particular) and the power plays of Jerzy Skolimowski’s screenplay take off. One lingering image has Niemczyk fiddling with his radio and Malanawicz trying to catch a pesky fly while Umecka undresses; the matchbox stripping-game from Innocent Sorcerers is here a match of pick-up sticks, the boy recites a poem and the wife offers a song (“We’re out of words and moons and stars, there’s no tenderness in us…”) in bravura long takes. Circles and triangles govern Polanski’s great, brackish anecdote about the instability of human interaction, with power ultimately belonging to the woman who sees through the pose of the louts orbiting around her but embraces seduction anyway. The closing image drops patriarchy on the crossroads, admission of guilt on one side and acceptance of cuckoldry on the other (cp. Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle).



Peter Cowie for the Criterion Collection:

From the outset, Polanski creates neat visual ruses to reveal a strength or weakness: the youth’s display of agility as he shinnies unexpectedly up the mast, for example, sends an erotic message to the wife. Much has been written about the phallic symbolism of the hunting knife carried by the youth. The knife lurks not merely as a sign of virility, but also as a metaphor for psychological force in the duel between the two men for the attentions of the woman. Polanski’s rare gift for trapping emotions in imagery rather than exclusively via dialogue aligned him with a fresh, more subtle brand of cinema that swept through Europe in the early 1960s––with Michelangelo Antonioni, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, and with Central European directors like Miklos Jancso, Jan Nemec, and Ewald Schorm.


Knife in the Water focused on the concept of non-conformity, on the subtle battles that erupt between the haves and have-nots. Most of the film’s witticisms are at the expense of the privileged, even pampered married couple, the prosperous “Establishment” in a Poland where most people were still struggling to cope with everyday poverty. More intriguingly, Polanski omits all reference to World War II, marking an escape from a past that obsessed Wajda and the somewhat older generation of Polish filmmakers. The youth in Knife in the Water (who Polanski considered playing himself) is a restless spirit, reluctant to accept orthodox habits, and his exit from the film, skipping nimbly away across the floating logs to the unknown promise of the mainland, confirms his survival instincts. All in all, the film marks a subtle and controlled debut for Polanski. Ahead lay Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown. But Knife in the Water retains a haunting, particularly Polish atmosphere that has dated barely a beat since it first appeared.


Kim Morgan, in brief, for Sunset Gun:

It’s evident. Roman Polanski emerged from the womb knowing cinema. Proof lies in his glorious first feature, Knife in the Water, a tense, complex, three-character study in which cruelty, violence, sexuality, absurdity (all of the Polanski hallmark obsessions and more) are laid out in pitch perfect sequences and characterizations, confined to one space.


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