Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water is one of the best debut feature films in the history of cinema. As a straightforward, character-driven psychological thriller it is near perfect. Every scene appears effortless yet each are expertly crafted and acted. And as the film goes along the tension builds in a logical yet natural way.
The film was originally conceived by Polanski to be about a husband, a wife and a stranger on a sailboat for three days but with the help of Jerzy Skolimowsky it was condensed into a 24-hour period, with little dialogue helping to give the film a more forceful and to-the-point conflict between the three characters.
As in most of Polanski's later films this one deals with the undercurrents of human nature; specifically humiliation and cruelty of one man toward another. In this case a cynical upper class man (Leon Niemczyk) invites a brash young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) to go sailing with him and his eye-catching wife (Jolanta Umecka). The idea is not necessarily to introduce the young man to sailing but to use him as fodder for his own male ego. He challenges the kid and shows off his strengths in front of him and his wife.
His wife is rather quiet at first. And like too many movies with attractive women she starts the film donning loose clothing, wearing glasses, and hair tied up. But as the film progresses she become more sexy; not only for the benefit of the two men but for we in the audience – presumably men – who understand the masculine need to boast and win her affections.
The film is very literal with the title. When the knife goes into the water the hostilities between the two men reaches a climax of sorts. Meanwhile the wife (and we) wait to see how this psychological ride will play out.
There are many reasons why the Knife in the Water succeeds. First is that it only has three characters in a small setting. Every action between the three seems very methodical and says something about their relationship to one another. The film is also engrossing because a lot of the action deals with process and work. The man and the woman in particular are always at work doing something on the ship to keep it on course. The film is also a very efficient 94 minutes in length.
One significant characteristic of the film is the dichotomy of its construction. Visually the film – shot by Jerzy Lipman – has an architectural structure that combines both the beauty of the lake - the water, the sky and the far horizon- with that of the sharp straight (and phallic) lines of the ship itself. As the tension builds around the claustrophobic sailboat we are reminded that they are out in a wide open landscape that somehow should be easing their tensions. But that's the cinema of Polanski; characters cannot escape their own psychological anxieties no matter where they are.
The film also uses a great jazz score that lends a certain freedom and improvisational feel to the film. Yet ironically it too contributes to the film's unpredictable nature.
Knife in the Water is such a good film that any other film (such as Dead Calm or Kaaterskill Falls) that comes anywhere within the vicinity of the story will be compared poorly to it. None of those films can touch Polanski's film mainly because of his masterful direction.
How does the Disc look?
The DVD is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and it looks outstanding. The film was shot using a handheld Arriflex camera well over 40 years ago yet it looks new. The image is at once crisp and sharp yet reveals a natural grainy look. Most of the film is shot during the day and captures the bright sunny look of the environment. The few scenes shot at dawn (I'm assuming literally shot at dawn) look grainy but very alluring. This is the kind of black and white film that some people dream about; it is not perfect but somehow very inviting.
The Eight Short films on Disc two don't look nearly as good. Many are aged but they have not been restored. The best looking of the short films is Teeth Smile and Break up the Dance. The others are films look to be warn and one in particular Mammals looks poor; although it was shot with a solid snow white background, which is problematic from the start.
How does the Disc sound?
The film is in Polish with English subtitles and has a great jazz score by Krzysztof Komeda. The audio is monoaural and sounds very good. There is not a lot of depth within sound since much of it was dubbed in the editing. (In fact, Polanski dubbed his own voice over that of the young man). But the film is more visually driven than dialogue driven anyway so it's not too conspicuous. And too the sound is much improved compared to the eight short films on the second disc all of which have poor dubbing.
What extras are there?
On Disc one is a Video Interview with Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski that lasts 26 minutes. It is an excellent interview that provides a lot of information in a short time. Also on Disc one are well over 50 production and publicity stills from the film.
On Disc two are Eight Short films by Polanski. Count 'em, eight! For Polanski fans this is a very welcome extra. The films were all shot between 1957 and 1962; six of the films were shot while Polanski was attending the Lodz film school. The films all deal to some degree with his main theme of conflict and cruelty. Here is a blurb on each:
Murder (1957) - Short and too the point.
Teeth Smile (1957) – An observation on voyeurism.
Break up the Dance (1957) - Hoodlums invite themselves to an exclusive party. Look out!
Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) – Polanski's most famous short film all about life's ironies and cruelties. Look for Polanski who does a Chinatown-like cameo.
The Lamp (1959) – Inanimate objects meet their fate.
When Angels Fall (1959) – An elderly woman who works in a lavatory reflects back on her life.
Fat and Lean (1961) – A master and slave scenario with Buster Keaton-type comedy. Polanski plays the slave.
Mammals (1962) – Absurdist humor about two men using and abusing one another in a harsh winter landscape.
Each of the short films are shot silent - although they use post synch sound - and only one has any dialogue. In many of them you can see Polanski working out the technical process of film. The Lodz film school was known as being very strict with regards to telling a story visually. It's easy to see that Polanski understood this very well and definitely is a natural born visual storyteller.
The only other extra is a good four page essay by Peter Cowie, which is on the inside cover of the disc jacket.
This two disc set from The Criterion Collection is the best place to start with the cinema of Roman Polanski. Every quirk, every theme and everything he has to say about human nature is right here on eight of his short films and his first feature. The technical presentation for Knife in the Water is top notch and the other films look good. It's hard not to want more extras but there is no reason for Criterion to do overkill on this one; after two full nights (or maybe one) of viewing everything on both discs most viewers will be satisfied.