Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski

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.

23 comments on “Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a wonderful post (you’ve really been on a roll recently!) on a film you know I deeply admire. I like the way you emphasized the sexual fun-and-games aspect of the movie, the competition for dominance between the older and younger man, and the way the wife manipulates both and plays them against each other in her own power struggle. I agree with your point that the “plot is incidental to the ironic atmosphere and dialogue….” I am especially impressed by the visuals of this movie. The shots of the boat skimming across the water really emphasize how these three are alone in their own little world, and as you wrote you can read so many different types of conflict into this microcosm. Polanski really manages to create a lot of implicit complexity with some pretty basic situations. My favorite individual scene is when the boat gets trapped in the reeds, and they have to pull it free.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D., Thanks for the kind words and I am well aware of how much you like this film. The visuals of the film are striking, claustrophobic, I guess, is the right word. For much of the film they are confined to their small world on the boat, especially in the scenes below the deck, it is very tight and confined. It is a striking first film, visually stunning and extremely tense.

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  2. Jon says:

    Knife in the Water is one of those Essentials in my opinion. Brilliant, compact, and taut with a definite edge to it. It’s arguably Polanski’s best film. I might pick Repulsion for his best, but it’s a tough call.

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    • John Greco says:

      Jon, I can’t argue with you here and like you, for me, it is one the those essentials that must be seen. The camera work is stunning and the entire film is tense. Thanks Jon!

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  3. Great essay John! You’ve written a wonderful piece on what is one of my favorite movies. I agree with Jon when he says it is one of those Essentials. There isn’t a weak moment or element in the entire film. It should be on required viewing lists around the world. I think this is Polanski’s best, with “Cul de Sac” coming in a close second. He has continued to make great movies, but I don’t think he topped his first effort.

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    • John Greco says:

      Jason, Thanks for the kind words and yes, it should be require viewing! List my favorite Polanski films is tough since I am always changing my mind (lol)so I will just list a few favorites without assigning a number to them.

      Knife in the Water
      Repulsion
      Chinatown
      Rosemary’s Baby
      The Tennant
      The Ghost Writer
      The Pianist
      Death and the Maiden
      Macbeth
      Cul-de-Sac

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  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Stupendous review John on a film that I have long-regarded as Polanski’s finest. It’s a model of chaustrophobic tension, and there’s not a single false note. This is one film where the ambiguity is actually the film’s main strength. The black and white cinematogaphy is arresting, and the film slowly engrosses you.

    I’ll play that Polanski game too:

    Knife in the Water
    Repulsion
    Macbeth
    Rosemary’s Baby
    The Pianist
    The Tenant
    Death and the Maiden
    Cul-de-Sac
    Chinatown

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Geez, I accidentally left off TESS and FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

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    • John Greco says:

      Tess is one of his few films I haveyet to have seen. THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS I saw but for some reason do not remember it too well. Need to take another look.

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  6. Sam Juliano says:

    and THE GHOST WRITER. Ah well.

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  7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I’m not too fond of early Polanski. This film was too cryptic for me. It felt like watered down Bergman…in a BAD way. Just personal opinion.

    Great review, though.

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    • John Greco says:

      Nathanael, While I disagree with you, I certainly respect your right to say it and I thank you for sharing it. At what point in his career did you start to like his work?

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      • Oh wow…I’m gonna sound horrible saying this…

        But I only really started to enjoy his films after his wife was murdered.

        Everything after “Rosemary’s Baby” was incredible.

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      • John Greco says:

        Meaning you did like ROSEMARY’S BABY? Wow! Now that shocks me (lol).

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  8. knight4444 says:

    Nice review John, excellent movie!! but I gotta be honest, I could have watched JOLANTA all by herself for 94 mins and died a happy man.

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    • John Greco says:

      Very pretty lady. She only made five films within five years and then seems to have disappeared or at least I am not aware of what happened to her.

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      • knight4444 says:

        Please don’t get me wrong, my comment about Jolanta was tongue in cheek, Knife in the water is a excellent movie. Roman Polanski is a legend!! question, does knife in the water ”somewhat” remind you of “Dead Calm”?? with Sam Neil, it just seems “Dead Calm” kinda got the basic idea from Polanski’s classic. just my humble opinion.

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      • knight4444 says:

        BTW @John, I believe Jolanta made 5 films in her short career. One is on You Tube called ”Panna Zazarancnica” 1966 haven’t seen it yet but I’ll give you my impression of it soon, once again thank you @John for having a forum on classic films.

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      • knight4444 says:

        Well that was quick!! NO SUB- TITLES!

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  9. John Greco says:

    I had the same thoughts when I first saw DEAD CALM. I won’t say it was a ripoff of Polanski’s film which is more of a psychological sexual thriller but there are obvious similarities.

    No subtitles on PANNA ZARANENICA. Probably should not be surprising. I doubt it ever played here in the U.S.

    And welcome to Twenty Four Frames!!!

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