Roman Polanski’s maiden voyage as a feature filmmaker had its world premiere in Poland on March 9, 1962. Knife in the Water concerns a husband and wife who pick up a mysterious young hitchhiker and invite him along on a lazy weekend boating trip, resulting in a simmering sexual tension that threatens to explode into violence. This hypnotic, minimalist thriller still stands as one of cinema’s sharpest debuts, and a high point in a cinematic era bursting with breakouts by European auteurs. Knife in the Water is also remarkable for how much it anticipates so many of Polanski’s great films to come: it’s a twisted pas de trois (like Cul-de-sac), set mostly in one claustrophobic space (like Repulsion), its characters are from different social classes (like The Ghost Writer) and plagued by free-floating paranoia (like The Tenant); it even foreshadows the central nightmare sequence of Rosemary’s Baby, so memorably set on a drifting boat.
You can cut the film’s tension with, well, a knife, as evidenced in the following clip, which illustrates the odd, undefinable electricity between the three main characters. An interesting side note: the part of the blond hitchhiker, played by Zygmunt Malanowicz, was dubbed by Polanski himself.
When it was released in the United States in 1963, Knife in the Water was a sensation, ultimately becoming the first Polish movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film. (It lost to Federico Fellini’s 8½—the list of submissions for the category that year, Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood among them, paints a clear picture of an era of the highs international art-house cinema was riding at the time.) Polanski’s film made such a splash that it was even on the cover of Time magazine.
Polish censors fought Polanski over the final cut of Knife in the Water, which, as the director and his cowriter Jerzy Skolimowski (director of 1970’s fantastic Deep End) explain in this interview clip, they believed to be too Western and have no social value.
In this rare radio interview, recorded in Warsaw in 1962, Polanski talks to film critic Gideon Bachmann as Knife in the Water is about to premiere in Poland. Polanski (speaking in French, translated by Bachmann) discusses the mystery of human interaction, casting Knife in the Water, his writing process, and more.