Andrzej Wajda dominated Polish cinema during the late fifties with his trilogy of films concerning the occupation of Poland during World War II. Still a young director, he was able to capture the dreams, despair, and contradictions of his country’s lost generation. But it was the maverick Roman Polanski who emerged onto the international film scene in the early 1960s obsessed not so much with the big issues of the day as with the quirks and backwaters of human nature.
One could argue that a revolution in Polish cinema had occurred some seven years prior to Polanski’s embarking on Knife in the Water––when Andrzej Wajda had shot A Generation (featuring, among other young actors, Polanski himself). Communist party officials had bridled at Wajda’s view of youngsters surviving during the Nazi Occupation. But the influence of Italian neo-realism on Wajda and his contemporaries proved irresistible. There’s a gritty feel to the films of the “Polish school” of the late 1950s that recalls the work of (Roberto) Rossellini in particular. The crucial significance of the State-run Lodz Film School must not be forgotten either. Wajda, Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Kryzysztof Zanussi all studied there, refusing to kowtow to orthodox Communist doctrine and rejecting the entrenched view of film as a medium for state propaganda.
The five-year director’s program at Lodz was demanding. One learned every phase of the movie-making process. Ten-hour days were the norm, and Polanski says you went every day except Christmas. His 1958 senior thesis Two Men and a Wardrobe caused a stir when it won international films festival awards at Oberhausen, Brussels, and San Francisco. It is an exercise in the Absurd and the surreal that suggests the hostility and suspicion with which outsiders can be regarded like the two men in the film who emerge from the sea carrying a large wardrobe. “I wanted to show a society,” said Polanski, “that rejects the non-conformist or anyone who is in its eyes afflicted with a moral or physical burden.” Two Men and a Wardrobe marks several other themes the director would continue to explore in future films––relationships between people, claustrophobia, scorn, deceit, violence, and humiliation.
The following year saw the release of his next short, When Angels Fall, which paints the portrait of an elderly woman working as a lavatory attendant. She looks back on her life and loves lost in the War, her reveries continually interrupted by “customers.” Until The Pianist in 2002, When Angels Fall was the only Polanski film to refer to the wars that transfigured Europe in the twentieth century, and the short, hectic battle scenes have much to say about the arbitrary barriers that war can create between men.
His other two short films, The Fat and the Lean (1961) and Mammals (1962) continued to explore the drama of “the two,” of man’s inhumanity to man and the battles waged mentally on one another. There’s a surrealist feel to The Fat and the Lean, as a servant tries frantically to do an aged man’s bidding, even dancing before him to the terrible sound of a drum that his master beats implacably. Mammals also features two individuals in conflict, dragging a sled through thick snow and devising one stratagem after another to avoid doing the hard work. Both films carry that tinge of the macabre that would mark Polanski’s feature work and set him apart from other Poles of his generation.
Knife in the Water, Polanski’s maiden feature would define his maverick status once and for all. Polanski’s personality stamps every frame. As one critic noted at the time: “The weapons are glances, words (very few and always exactly chosen). Polanski is a holy terror of intelligent restraint––detached, ironic, playful as a cat with a mouse, encompassing with ease his alternations of the deathly serious and the dead-pan comic.” One should not, however, forget the contribution of Jerzy Skolimowski, who worked on the screenplay and urged Polanski to compress the action into twenty-four hours A poet and dreamer, Skolimowski had enrolled at the Lodz Film School in 1960, on the personal recommendation of Wajda, and would go on to direct films that sketch with sharp humor and sensitivity his country’s makeup––films like Barrier (1966), Le Départ (1967), Deep End (1970), and Moonlighting (1982).
The solitude, or rather isolation, that envelops so much of Polanski’s early cinema is seen again in Knife in the Water. He told The New York Times Magazine in 1971: “What I like is a realistic situation where things don’t quite fit in. I like to begin with a mood, an atmosphere. I begin to people the atmosphere with characters. When I thought of Knife in the Water, I thought, first of the north of Poland where I used to sail and of a theme that wouldn’t involve large numbers of characters.” In Knife in the Water, the Polish lake district appears utterly uninhabited. Not a single other human being even slips into the frame. So, despite the immense skies and vast stretches of water, the three characters remain trapped in a hermetic, Sartrean huis clos.
Polanski recalls that it was hell to shoot the picture in such cramped circumstances: “The yacht was quite big enough to accommodate three actors but uncomfortably cramped for the dozen-odd people behind the camera. When shooting aboard, we had to don safety harnesses and hang out over the side.” But again, constraint becomes a virtue. Polanski’s stifling compositions, with one face in close-up crowding half the frame while the two other characters talk in the background, lend a sense of incarceration to the battle of wits. And at every turn, the weather dictates the fickle mood. The desolate horizons in every direction. The waters of the lake, now placid, now whipped into irritation. The glaring sun at noon. The milky light of a summer’s evening. The dark, ominous massing of clouds. These elements work in alliance with the film’s dialogue time and again.
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.
By film’s end, with the knife long drowned in the waters of the lake, everyone’s pride is bruised. The young man has dashed nimbly away across the floating logs to an uncertain future. The husband and wife are left by Polanski at a crossroads, both literally and metaphorically. The distinguished Polish critic Jacek Fuksiewicz has written of the “ruthlessness with which Polanski penetrates the minds of his characters, stripping off their successive masks to reveal cruelty, deceit and plain stupidity.”
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.
Nominated for an Academy Award, Knife in the Water failed to win against the dazzling and flamboyant Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, but at least it was the first time a Polish film had ever received an Oscar nomination, and it also introduced American audiences to a new brand of psychological cinema––almost “chamber cinema,” with a handful of contemporary characters, modest production values, and enriched with intellectual fiber.
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.