In 1963, Roman Polanski’s debut feature became the first Polish film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. It lost to Federico Fellini’s brilliant 8 1/2, certainly no disgrace. The film’s American premiere was at the First New York Film Festival before beginning a regular theatrical run at the Beekman Theater in Manhattan. The film garnered plenty of publicity. In conjunction with an article on the NYFF, Polanski’s film made the cover of the September 20th 1963 issue of TIME Magazine. To say the least, It was an auspicious start for the young Polish filmmaker. The film itself is a three character psychological thriller containing more than enough tension, sexual and otherwise, to fill its 94 minute running time. The plot is incidental to the ironic atmosphere and dialogue between the characters that cuts deep, like the huge knife the young man carries on his person.
Andrezj (Leon Niemczyk) , a middle aged man and his young beautiful wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are driving in the countryside heading toward the lake for a Sunday boating trip. You can feel the tension between the couple right at the beginning with Andrezj noticeably irritated with Krsytyna’s driving. Upset herself, she eventually pulls over and lets him take over the driving. Half a mile down the road a young, good looking hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) forces the couple to stop their car by standing in the middle of the road. “You’re lights are still on,” he monchalantly tells Andrezj. Annoyed, Andrezj tells him, that if he had performed this stunt a half a mile back, he would have been dead, snidely getting a dig in at his wife’s driving. The tension between the couple remains evident, though the wife has not said a word. The husband continues pushing buttons, getting in another dig at his wife telling her, “oh sure, you would pick the guy up.” Exasperated by her demeanor, Andrezj practically drags the young hitchhiker into the car.
And so Polanski begins a series of subtle but dangerous games, a power struggle of human chess moves, involving class distinction, the haves and have-nots, sexual competition, macho posturing, and the slow deterioration of a marriage. Andrezj and Krsytyna are upper middle class; financially well off in a country that was still under Communistic rule with most fellow countrymen struggling with little or nothing. The young man is a student, or a former student, now apparently a drifter who wants what Andrezj has; money, power and a very attractive, sexy, younger woman. As a youth, Andrezj was like the young man, he wanted it all and fast, but with success, he has now become part of the ruling establishment. He feels threatened by the young man, whose name we never learn, taunting, spitting out orders on the boat, telling the young man he gives the orders because he is the skipper. The young man resents being treated like a coolie.
Once the three set sail, the film’s friction switches from between the husband and wife to the older and young man with the winner getting the wife as a prize. Most of the film drips with sex. For most of the film Krsytyna is dressed in a skimpy bikini. Later the young drifter catches a furtive side view of her removing her bikini top. At night the three play a game of strip “pickup sticks” with Krsytyna offering the young man her shoe with a knowing smile. When, Andrezj jumps off the boat to swim to shore thinking he is responsible for the young man drowning, the drifters reappears on the boat, spotting Krsytyna naked. They soon after make love.
The entire film is surrounded in ambiguity. We know little about any of the three characters other than what happens on the screen. Like the claustrophobic sailboat they are on for most of the film, the three characters are adrift. Polanski has them constantly on the move, in a car, a boat, swimming, yet going nowhere, their lives, like the sailboat, are drifting with no direction known. In the end, the young man after faking his own drowning and making love to Krsytyna finds the prize is short-lived. He leaves for good getting off the boat jumping from one watered log to another, never to be seen again. Krsytyna’s “victory” over her husband, is also fleeting (she tells him she seduced the young man, but he doesn’t believe her). We leave Andrezj and Krsytyna in their car as we first met them, only at a crossroads, motionless, literally and metaphorically, as the film ends.
The film was written by Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg, though in an interview on the Criterion Disc, Polanski states that Goldberg contributed hardly anything and was used more as a gofer. The film met with generally very favorable reviews in America though some critics dissented. The Polish Government found the film frivolous and was surprised by the reception it would receive overseas. In addition to the Academy nomination for Best Foreign Film, Knife in the Water was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. The film launched Polanski’s career as a international filmmaker who would produce some of the finest, most tense and gripping thrillers of the coming decades including such films as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and the intricate, Chinatown. Now in his seventies, Polanski is still directing masterful works like his 2010, The Ghost Writer. Polanski is currently in post-production on his latest film, Carnage, with Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and oddly enough, John C. Reilly. According to IMDB the film is based on a play about parents who meet after their two sons are involved in a brawl. The film is scheduled for a 2012 release.