Aside from some earlier short films, Roman Polanski‘s debut Knife In The Water (1962, 93 mins) is unique amongst his work in that it’s the only one in his native Polish. Well received, it became the first Polish film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, although Federico Fellini‘s 8½ eventually secured the prize. While both may start in cars, the roads they travel along could not be more different, as Polanski keeps his story grounded in reality.
Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a sports writer who, in so far as one can in post-war Poland, appears to have it made; a car, a boat, and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), a wife many years his junior. One day, when driving out to the boat, they come across a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While Andrzej would happily drive on, he suspects that Krystyna would have shown more compassion. After an ill-tempered rant, Andrzej cedes to his wife’s sympathy, although only because he senses an opportunity to play a game. The hitchhiker first joins them in the car, then on the boat.
The journey that follows sees the two men play a macho game of oneupmanship, which devolves into a serious battle for Krystyna’s affections. For all his physical feats (e.g. shimmying up a mast), the young man is naive and unskilled. Matters maritime lead to derision from his challenger. Conversely, what Andrzej lacks in youth, his experience compensates. His practical, patronising approach is his way of impressing.
In more intimate moments, we see the trio come together, eat, talk, and play more simple games. One of these sees Krystyna perform a song as forfeit to losing. Andrzej concerns himself with the radio, listening in to a boxing match, while the lyrics she sings capture the essence of their marriage (“Joy has faded and our love’s gone sour.”) His lack of interest in what she has to say underpins the unhappiness of their relationship.
Such subtlety is at the core of how Polanski works in Knife On The Water. What the characters lack in verbal interaction, we learn so much more from body language; a quick glance here, a smile there. Even a dearth of subtitles does not detract from what’s being said due to both context and the physical actions that accompany. For the two younger stars, who were new to acting, their turns are well-played (although Malanowicz does appear less youthful than is suggested) and Niemczyk’s older Andrzej flits between smugness and authoritarianism that, by the end, has slipped into confusion and fear.
Away from his actors’ performance, the cinematography is beautiful. Shot in black and white, the composed images capture so many shades of grey. Even on a small boat, where one would expect limited flexibility for a film crew, Polanski manages to provide shot after shot of unique angles; sometimes overly crowded and claustrophobic; other times open and empty. Beyond the trio, we see clouded skies, hints of land on the horizon, but no other glimpse of nature. No fish in the water, no birds in the sky. At times the boat sailing through this barren world is accompanied by Krzytsztof Komeda‘s jazzy score, led by Bernt Rosengren‘s sultry saxophone, which adds spice to the film’s sense of menace.
The titular knife belongs to the unnamed boy. Forewarned by the title, each appearance it makes creates a sense of dread, brought on by not knowing how it will be used. When it hits the water the sexual tension that has been growing on board comes to a head. We do not see the knife actually in the water — Polanski gives us only the splash but it makes ripples that, for everyone, will change their life.