[Film Review] Knife in the Water (1962)

Knife in the Water poster

English Title: Knife in the Water
Original Title: Nóz w wodzie
Year: 1962
Country: Poland
Language: Polish
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Roman Polanski
Jakub Goldberg
Roman Polanski
Jerzy Skolimowski
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cinematography: Jerzy Lipman
Leon Niemczyk
Jolanta Umecka
Zygmunt Malanowicz
Rating: 7.5/10

Knife in the Water 1962

Roman Polanski’s well-acclaimed feature debut, is the only film he has made in his native country Poland. KNIFE IN THE WATER is an intelligent drama exclusively resolves around three people, Andrzej (Niemczyk), his wife Krystyna (Umecka) and an unnamed young man (Malanowicz) with minimal locations.

Middle-aged Andrzej, driving with his much younger wife Krystyna on their way to a daily sailing, en route, Andrzej almost knocks off a reckless hitchhiker, outraged, he still agrees to take the stranger, and eventually invites him to join them together for the excursion, here, Polanski hints the motivation, since the young man claims he doesn’t have the faintest about sailing and cannot swim at all, as a man twice of his age, Andrzej’s intention to teach him some hard lessons and make himself look good (an ego boost is very much needed because things are not very smooth between him and Krystyna as well) is quite obvious.

The journey starts in a predicted direction, Andrzej is the self-claimed captain, as if he were a seasoned seafarer, instructs the young man with basic nautical techniques, teases him for his clumsiness, and gets offended when his yarn turns out to be a bore to his guest. The tension between the two men (two generations) is tangible, but out of courtesy and etiquette, it has been buried underneath the surface, there is even a peaceful period when all of them hide inside the sailing boat and spend a night during an unexpected tempest. The next day, what triggers the falling-out is actually very understated, but a sensitive soul may sense Andrzej’s jealousy when he wakes up and finds out both Krystyna and the young man have already been staying outside, there is no inappropriate behaviours between them (as far as what Polanski shows us), but the insecurity of his sexual competence (especially facing the competition of a young man’s hormones) pesters him even subconsciously, and soon it evolves into a battle of egos.

From the young man’s angle, he is not a wide-eyed simpleton, before accepting the invitation, he already betrays his complacency by saying that “he knows Andrzej will ask him to go with them”, what does it mean? He is astute enough to predict Andrzej’s motivation and is willing to take the challenge, with the fringe benefit of experiencing the middle-class luxury. Considering the time of the Communist Poland, it is an invitation rather tempting for a homeless youngster, but his rebellious nature will not yield to Andrzej’s overreaching dominion though, he has nothing to lose, and his knife becomes the symbol of the eminent danger. It is understandable Polanski at that age, decides to side with him to outsmart his rival in the end, thanks to a telling lie (“I can’t swim”).

But the film is not just a duel between two men, Krystyna is the key balance, in the beginning, she is introduced as an unassuming wife with an unprepossessing wig and rather dark complexion. And she is extremely disinterested in the bonding-and-clashing process between the two men, maybe she has witnessed such happenings many too often from Andrzej, and being a dab hand in sailing, one assumes she must have undergone the same tutoring from him, thus she simply has lost any interest in participation. But when she gets close the young man, the undercurrent of sexual tension starts to surface, she sultry sex appeal also slowly unfolds, especially after their song-and-poetry exchange inside the boat, she seems to find a kindred spirit. When the accident occurs, her resentment towards Andrzej explodes, and canoodling with a young man becomes her revenge to their insipid marriage (why woman can only use her sexuality as the weapon to rebel? – that’s my disagreement with the film). Then the coda, when the interloper disappears, facing the crossroad, she can triumphantly take the moral high ground and keep this incident as a trumping card without the fabrication of a lie, because the egocentric Andrzej will never believe her story, aka. the truth and admit he has been fooled by the young man, a superb ending with perfect ambiguity.

KNIFE IN THE WATER is a bracingly competent debut, largely shuns the disadvantages (e.g. self-absorbed pretension or becoming visually dreary) of a 3-way cast and limited settings, also it contains the accomplishment of its Jazz-fused soundtrack. But if one expects it being a taut thriller, it is not at that tempo at all, a solemn character drama is the right categorisation.

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