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Knife in the Water

From Mr. Polanski’s 1984 autobiography, Roman, published by William Morrow and Company.

Knife in the Water started out as a straightforward thriller: a couple aboard a small yacht take on a passenger who disappears in mysterious circumstances. From the first, the story concerned the interplay of antagonistic personalities within a confined space. Though stagey, the notion of isolating three people from the world lost its theatricality when the setting was a sailboat. I wrote a short treatment and soon signed a contract for my first film with Poland’s Kamera [film production unit].

I didn’t get very far with my first script collaborator, Kuba Goldberg. Then Jerzy Skolimowski appeared on the scene. A university student, amateur boxer and published poet, he was also a film school aspirant who happened to be visiting Lodz Film School for the two-week entrance exam. At my suggestion he took a look at what my previous collaborator and I had so far produced. Our duo became a trio.Skolimowski was a stimulating and inventive collaborator. He snatched every moment he could spare to help me develop the screenplay, toiling nonstop into the small hours while moths flew at us from out of the hot summer night. His contribution to Knife in the Water was a major one. It was he who insisted that the action, originally spread over three or four days, should be compressed to twenty-four hours.

When the script was finished it was submitted to the Ministry of Culture for approval. My expectations were at a fever pitch—preproduction had actually started—when the board rejected it on the ground that it lacked social commitment.

Some eighteen months later, sensing the political climate had changed, I decided to try again with the Ministry of Culture. I tinkered with a few scenes, adding some snippets of dialogue designed to impart a trifle more “social commitment,” and this time the screenplay committee passed it for production.

Then I started casting. For the middle-aged journalist husband I settled on an experienced stage actor named Leon Niemczyk, who was handsome and slightly mannered in a way that suited the part. 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. Rather than court the hostility of critics, I eventually picked Zygmunt Malanowicz, straight out of drama school. Casting the journalist’s wife proved more difficult: I decided to look for a non-professional. On the strength of a screen test, I gave the part to Jolanta Umecka, whom I spotted while prospecting at a municipal swimming pool in Warsaw.

Second only in importance to cast and crew was the large houseboat that became our floating home for several months in the summer of 1961. I insisted on renting this in the knowledge that it would make for greater efficiency and mobility while shooting, quite apart from being cheaper than score of hotel rooms.

Even discounting wind, weather and the natural hazards of filming afloat, Knife in the Water was a devilishly difficult picture to make. 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 over the side.

After all the hardship endured in the making of my first film, the press showing was a disaster. The critics were determined to pan it. The members of Poland’s nomenklatura (communist establishment) were starting to get rich quickly at this period, and Knife was, among other things, an attack on privilege. Whether motivated by spite or political zeal, most critics vociferously demanded to know what the film was about. My “cosmopolitan” background was grist to their mill.

Despite its rejection in Poland, Knife caused considerable stir elsewhere. It won the coveted Critics’ Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. The following year, a still from the film appeared on the cover of the September 20, 1963, issue of Time. Better than that, it was nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category.

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