First Film Series: Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water

First Film Series: Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water

As a debut, Roman Polanski’s  Knife in the Water (1963), is a fantastic first feature film. It won the coveted Critic’s prize at the 1962 Venice film festival, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 and a still from the film was used on the cover of Time Magazine’s September 1963 issue. The film is now 51 years old.

It features three actors and three actors only, no extras, and its single location is that of a small, somewhat claustrophobic, 35-foot sailboat cruising the northern waters of Poland’s Masurian Lake District, a vacation area containing two thousand bodies of water. The film takes place over a 24-hour period.

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Knife in the Water was written by Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski (a great director as well). The well regarded jazz score was written Kryzsztof Komeda with saxaphone performed by Bernt Rosengren.

The actors are Zygmunt Malanowicz as the student/drifter (who, now dead, also starred in Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (2005)), Jolanta Umecka as Krystyna, and Leon Niemczyk as Andrzej, the husband. Only Niemczyk had any acting experience and in fact Polanski found Jolanta at a local swimming pool—two of the three actors had never acted before.

Originally Polanski wanted to play the part of the student, but was persuaded not to. In the end he dubbed over Malanowicz’s voice with his own.

I originally intended to play the young hitchhiker myself, but I was eventually dissuaded. Any director making his first feature film was vulnerable to criticism of all kinds, so combined responsibility for screenplay, direction, and one of the three parts might lay me open to charges of egomania. — via Criterion

The film opens with the couple driving through the countryside on an early Sunday morning. Like other Polanski films, Knife in the Water details a precipitous marriage. In the opening scene the wife, Krystyna, is driving and her husband, Andrzej, takes the wheel from the passenger side in a display of control. Krystyna, disgusted, stops the car in the middle of the road and they wordlessly switch places.

The opening scene immediately creates the tone of the film as one of absurd machismo and sets up Krystyna as a quiet and dutiful wife who, despite being outwardly servile and a willful participant of a well-oiled marriage machine, is only willing to take so much from her husband. Throughout the film, Kyrstyna is a capable organizer and sailor, and, presumably is a good driver.

As they speed down the road they almost run over the other character in the film—the drifter ends up with the couple on their sail boat. As Andrzej says, “if two men are on board, one is the skipper,” and from this point on the film becomes a contest between the two men in terms of who is more of a capable man. As this contest continues, eventually it, of course, becomes physical and the drifter, who previously stated he cannot swim, is knocked into the water, and does not obviously resurface. Instead, having lied about his swimming ability, he swims to and clings to a nearby buoy. After Krystyna dives in, looking for the drifter, Andrzej also joins in the fruitless search. Returning to the boat, the couple fight, and Andrzej dives in again, but instead of looking for the drifter actually swims to shore, assuming the drifter has drowned. The drifter then lets go of the buoy and swims back to the boat, where he and Krystyna make love. Afterwards, Krystyna drops the drifter off on a group of logs, over which he walks to land, as free as ever. Krystyna sails to shore where Andrzej is waiting.

Driving away from the marina, Kyrstyna tells her husband that she cheated on him with the drifter. Now Andrzej has literally two directions/choices he can take: 1) head to the police station to turn himself in for accidentally killing the drifter or 2) believe that the drifter is still alive and that his wife cheated on him. However, the film ends ambiguously.

The film was not well received in Poland, and in fact a reporter wrote an article during production, an article that helped to doom the film before it was even finished, let alone shown. Famously, at a screening, Polish state party secretary Wladyslaw Gomulk tossed an ashtray at the film. Yet it was well received throughout the rest of the world and is now considered one of the most important films of all time, certainly one of the most stunning debut films.

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Interestingly the film strips away almost everything. In fact the characters costuming is mostly their swimsuits, Krystyna’s even a two-piece. The characters are almost completely de-contextualized. While taking place in Poland, there is very little in the film that has anything to do with its history or society or culture, other than a few throwaway lines that Polanski was essentially forced to place in the film. Certainly there is some sense of class separation, in that the couple own a car and a boat, and the drifter has nothing but what is in his knapsack (including the comically sized knife that helps make up the title), but this is more about setting up the smugness and arrogance of Andrzej than any class distinctions.

That said, in analysis of the film it’s common to come to the conclusion that the drifter represents democracy, capitalism and freedom (i.e. Polanski himself) and Andrzej represents communist Poland. Further, that on an even closer reading, the film represents Polanski’s desire to drift through life, doing whatever he pleases with little thought about the repercussions.

In the end the film is oblique and ambiguous. In some ways it seems that Krystyna “wins” but what she has won is continued participation in a difficult, perhaps even hateful, marriage. The drifter has come out unscathed, but has nothing to show except a fleeting moment of pleasure. The film is nihilistic and yet fascinating. As Polanski says, when there is two people there is conflict. In this film there are three people, but what we are really watching, and enjoying, is the potentially deadly drama over nothing.

In closing, here is a rare interview with Polanski, recorded in Warsaw in 1962, about the film.