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Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water
Criterion 215
1962 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 min. / Nóz w wodzie / Street Date September 30, 2003 / 39.95
Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz
Cinematography Jerzy Lipman
Production Designer Boleslaw Kamykowski
Film Editor Halina Prugar
Original Music Krzysztof T. Komeda, Bernta Rosengrena
Written by Jakub Goldberg Roman Polanski Jerzy Skolimowski
Produced by Stanislaw Zylewicz
Directed by Roman Polanski

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Roman Polanski's international breakthrough feature is a cagy and sophisticated art film masterfully judged to take the West by surprise. It provided the springboard for one of the most impressive directorial careers ever. A gray, moody character study of two males' subtle competition for a female, it has an almost uncanny ability to draw one into its hypernaturalistic surface. The acting and the direction of actors for camera are so good that Polanski is able to enclose us entirely within his tiny world on a small sailboat.

Criterion years ago gave us a fine laser disc of this title and has now topped that with a DVD loaded with directorial cooperation. The big prize is the contents of the second disc: Polanski's legendary short films done at his Polish film school and independently.


Discontented couple Andrej and Krystyna (Leon Niemczyk and Jolant Umecka) bicker vaguely on the drive to a lake in the North of Poland. On the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who seems to intrigue Andrej by refusing to acknowledge the older man's superiority and dominance. Krystyna remains neutral, but Andrej follows an impulse to invite the boy along for their weekend cruise, all the while using the boy's unfamiliarity with boats to force the superiority issue. The boy resists with subtle words and gestures and a strange shapeless duel begins. Nobody really ever threatens anyone - at least not directly - but the tensions that develop aren't easy to analyze or categorize, even by the trio themselves.

Knife in the Water was the proverbial home run with the bases loaded. Genius director Polanski beat the Westerners at their own game and produced a technically proficient, dramatically intriguing puzzle of relationships with a style quite different from those of the then popular French and Italian auteurs. As reported by this disc's ample resources, the film catapulted unknown talent Polanski to the top of the heap, with an Oscar nomination and his picture on the cover of Time magazine. Maybe he didn't expect the magazine cover, but Polanski was shrewd enough to have calculated his film for all the other accolades it earned.

Andrzej is apparently the exceptional independent Pole doing well enough to afford a private car and a personal boat. We can't tell for certain if Krystyna is his wife, girlfriend or mistress. But it's fairly obvious that he has a need to prove himself in Krystyna's eyes with this outsider, the blonde hitchhiker. They play a game of what another reviewer called 'two in, one out' where we're always aware of the triangular dynamics of the relationship. The boy sits alone while Andrzej appears to feel satisfied only when Krystyna remains submissively at his side. Krystyna doesn't interfere much with Andrzej's subtle harassment, but as soon as she sides with the boy on the tiniest issue, Andrzej takes it personally. It's all happening between personal perceptions and interpretations, totally unlike familiar filmed dramas. Theatrical signals, clever dialogue and the literary structure of meanings and exaggerations don't enter into this dynamic triangle.

Equally impressive is Polanski's mastery of the camera. I think it's still the best description of the director's supremacy: at any given moment, Polanski's camera is always where it wants to be. The angles are insightful without being clever, and his images beautiful without being decorative. The sailboat isn't that big, and the camera seems to be all over it, always showing the three, the boat, the water and the sky - but no crew, which had to be at least three more people.

Either Roman was able to dictate the utter cooperation of the elements on this Polish lake, or he effortlessly solved all the problems that plague people trying film on the water. The annals of filmdom ring with directors rueing the day they ever set foot on a boat: John Huston losing cameras and entire whale props while filming Moby Dick, for instance. Young Steven Spielberg found out how hopeless it was to expect the light, waves, clouds and other boating traffic to stay put for ten minutes while filming Jaws.

But those films were shot on the high seas. Polanski said he was familiar with the lake district, and perhaps knew when he could depend on the hazy gray beauty we see in Knife in the Water, but there's no accounting for the way the moods of the sky match the emotions on the boat. We never get the feeling that the slightest technical or weather-related problem dictated any of what we see. We can feel this right from the start; Polanski has us in his grip because it's immediately clear that Knife in the Water is unlike anything we've seen before.

Insensitive viewers will decide soon on that Nothing At All happens in this movie, when the truth is that almost everything happens. Taken in the context of Polanski's other work, we expect some kind of outward statement to make the characters align with political positions, even the simple master-slave relationships of his short films. Knife in the Water remains intelligently above that: Polanski's politics of the absurd are there, but completely sublimated.

Criterion's DVD of Knife in the Water is dazzlingly clean but retains its contrast of sombre grays when the sky is overcast, and bright clarity in the afternoon sunshine. The first disc of the set includes a very intense interview with Polanski and his co-scenarist Jerzy Skolimowski, who also became a noted director.

It's a great interview. Polanski talks about everything - politics in Poland, his own discoveries while filming, the blind luck of his casting and the work he did to make his mismatched players work. While discussing styles, he voices his hilarious opinion of the Dogma film movement (paraphrase): "I'm allergic to Dogma, all that shaky camera nonsense. It looks like the cameraman has Parkinson's Disease, or maybe while filming he's masturbating." Ah, wisdom, and the courage to tell it straight.

Disc two has the treasure for old fans of Polanski: all eight of his short films, not just the ones frequently shown at festivals. Each is presented with just a brief descriptive text page, and Polanski has insisted on a very David Lynch-like feature: we can pause the image, but we can't back it up or go fast forward. This makes viewing the shorts a much more film-like experience. DVD already offers a presentation in most ways superior to 16mm (although all of these seem to be 35mm) and not having the luxury to easily review a shot causes us to watch all the more carefully. Very clever, and just the kind of trick we'd expect from Polanski.

Murder and Teeth Smile are fragmentary experiments that show Polanski's interest in dark and moody subjects, and not much else. Break up the Dance is billed as an attempt to create a cinema verite account of a 'real' happening, but is perhaps too ambitious and bitty.

Two Men and a Wardrobe is the opus that first got Polanski attention overseas, establishing him as a top interpreter of the absurd. It's an openly allegorical little skit free of the heavy-handedness of similar films from Czechoslovakia at the same time. Polanski's theme is the tragedy of being saddled with anything new or unfamiliar, like a new idea, and doesn't come out swinging against totalianarianism. It's the Polanski short film most often shown; I've been asked in at least 4 college papers what the wardrobe meant.  1

The Lamp is a curious bit of magic about a dollmaker betrayed by new technology, but isn't as memorable as When Angels Fall, a lengthy and subtly sentimental tale of an ancient washroom attendant who remembers her romance with a soldier ages ago, and later the equally sad tale of her son. Polanski experimentally mixes B&W and color.

Polanski's last two shorts are absurdist fables that lean toward Sartre and Kafka, and are both more obvious and technically sophisticated. The Fat and the Lean is a cruel little tale about a rich slob in striped pants who keeps a ragged helper (Polanski) in abject servitude through a number of schemes - threats, punishment, etc. The poor slave keeps wanting to run away to the city, but his master retains him by going so far as tying him to a goat. Curiously, when the goat is set loose, the slave is more grateful and work-bound than ever. Mammals is almost a Laurel & Hardy tale of two fools crossing an endless snowscape on a sled, who continuously find excuses for the other one to do the hard work of pulling. You can't crystalize the issue of man's basic selfishness any further, but Polanski's cynical schematics play very coldly. This is the only one of the shorts that doesn't seem to be an original print - either it's a few generations down or Polanski meant for there to be absolutely no detail beyond white and black, and had a camera shutter problem half the time as well. Doesn't seem likely for this director.

The shorts are great because they tell us exactly where Polanski was coming from in later features that confused many viewers. Seen as an absurdist comedy instead of a slapstick farce, The Fearless Vampire Killers has a lot in common with the themes in these experimental films. It makes me want to see Pirates again, to give it a chance beyond what was possible to judge from a blurry, flat 1988 videotape.

We also get a good sampling of the genius of Polanski's first and best music composer, Krystof Komeda. His score for Knife in the Water is cool jazz, but When Angels Fall has an icy creepiness that seems a dry run for the fantastic excesses of The Fearless Vampire Killers, his masterpiece. Komeda died not long after finishing Rosemary's Baby, becoming another late-60s tragedy for Polanski - the composer was one of his dearest friends.

It may be a subjective observation, but Criterion producer Karen Stetler seems to be associated with some of their best and most academically rewarding product. This Knife in the Water disc set is found gold for cinema enthusiasts.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Knife in the Water rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview, publicity and production stills; second disc containing all of Polanski's short subjects. Liner notes by Peter Cowie.
Packaging: double Keep case
Reviewed: September 30, 2003


1. Polanski-philes know what the wardrobe means - it's the cabinet that recurs in many of his films with a nightmarish regularity. Wardobes block doorways in Repulsion and The Fearless Vampire Killers, and a closet-cabinet blocks the passageway into a demonic apartment in Rosemary's Baby.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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