Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: Knife in the Water

Still from “Knife in the Water” 1962.

Still from “Knife in the Water” 1962.

We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

9. Knife in the Water, 1962

The opening shot of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water is mysterious and hypnotic. It brilliantly sets the tone for the entire movie.

A car rattles down a road in the Polish countryside. The camera is mounted on the hood angled towards the windshield. But we can’t see who’s in the car because the reflection of a trees obscures our view. But after a few moments, the image coheres.

We see a woman driving. She looks prim, almost like a schoolmarm in dark, horn rimmed glasses, with severely cut hair, a dark helmet. Her lips are tight, grim. Next to her sits a man, we presume, her husband. He’s obviously scolding her. But we can’t hear a word because we are still outside the car looking in. After a few tense seconds, the woman downshifts, cruises to a halt, gets out of the car and changes places with the man. Now, he drives. She smolders in wordless anger and humiliation. He is smugly content, in control — of the car and the woman.

Polanski’s film made the cover of the September 20th 1963 issue of TIME Magazine.

Polanski’s film made the cover of the September 20th 1963 issue of TIME Magazine.

This is a beautiful and elegant introduction to two of the main characters in Roman Polanski’s first feature film, Knife in the Water, made when he was still living in Poland, an unknown film director trying to work behind the iron curtain. As in all Communist countries, movie production was financed and controlled by the state. The world’s most powerful tool of propaganda must be the voice of politically correct thought in order to better control the masses.

Polanski, a Jew and a liberal artist, had submitted the script for Knife in the Water to the Communist Party film authorities several times. Each time it was rejected. The bureaucrats recognized the film’s subversive undertone. But then, something happened — perhaps palms were greased — and the little film with only three characters was approved for production.

The story is simple and stark. And, to be honest, it’s barely a story, certainly it’s not dependent on a traditional plot. And yet, Polanski (who wrote the script with Jerzy Skolimowsi and Jakub Goldberg) turns the screws of this minimal moral fable with such commanding control that the tension in this black & white film of 94 minutes becomes almost unbearable.

Andrezj (Leon Niemczyk) , a middle aged man and his attractive young wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are driving in the countryside heading toward a lake for a boating trip. The friction between them cuts like the knife of the title. They pick up a young, good looking hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz).

Andrezj and Krsytyna are, by Communist, Polish standards, upper class. They have money, a car and a boat, in a country where most of their fellow countrymen are standing on breadlines. The young man is or was a student. Now, he’s just a sullen drifter who yearns to have what Andrezj has; money, material possessions, and, of course, a desirable woman.

Andrezj invites the drifter to come along on their boat trip. This is, we soon realize, the opening gambit in a dangerous  game, a power struggle concerning class warfare and sexual power.

The young man and the middle aged man posture for the benefit of the the woman. Krystyna cleverly, almost wordlessly, plays the men off each other. She understands and relishes the fact that she is the prize in this age-old struggle for male dominance.

One of the more striking visuals, Jolanta Umecka -Knife in the Water'62.

One of the more striking visuals, Jolanta Umecka, “Knife in the Water” ’62.

Polanski achieves his emotional highs by choreographing movements within the frame in a tightly controlled manner. In one stunning shot, Krystyna lies on the deck with the water and the background shore drifting past. The composition is striking. Suddenly, this distant, chilly woman who barely speaks, becomes an object of sublime beauty and desire. So precise are Polanski’s compositions that Hitchcock frequently comes to mind. Both directors build exquisite layers of psychological suspense using imperceptible changes of point of view.

The film has no exposition. Something every good screenwriter tries (and usually fails) to achieve. We know nothing about these characters beyond what happens in the car, on the boat, and in the water. But near the end, when tempers and violence flare, Andrezj tells his wife that without him she’d be nothing but a whore. Husband and wife are morally compromised. They have both made accommodations with the state and with each other that have rotted their souls.

The film is intentionally claustrophobic. From the cramped car to the small boat, the unhappy trio drift aimlessly. And that is the central metaphor that sustains the narrative. Three characters going nowhere. But there is a journey and it is inward, to the soul-deadening impact of the totalitarian state on man, woman, love, and marriage.

When the film was released, the Polish authorities immediately recognized the movie as a deeply inflammatory work. They banned it. Polanski managed to make his way to Paris where he lived in abject poverty for a few months. And then, the film was screened in the West and became a sensation. In fact, Knife in the Water became the first Polish film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It lost to Federico Fellini’s tedious 8 1/2, another case of Oscar getting it dead wrong.

In 1976, when I was working as the editor-in-chief of a film magazine in New York, I had the opportunity to interview Polanski. His film The Tenant was to be the subject of our discussion. We met at the swanky Hotel Pierre. I didn’t care  for The Tenant, and I think Polanski was not all that crazy about the film either. We discussed Knife in the Water at length. Polanski came alive when discussing the technical challenges of shooting the film in such confined locations. He told me, with pride and enthusiasm, that on the boat, he and his crew often had to hang dangerously over the water in order to stage the complicated choreography.

“It’s a very great film,” I told him.

Polanski nodded his head in obvious satisfaction. Then his gaze shifted to an incredibly beautiful woman walking past our table. “That is a very great ass.” he said.

Polish poster for Knife in the Water.

Polish poster for Knife in the Water.

The best DVD of this film is by Criterion.

This entry was posted in Great Movies, Greatest Movies of the 1960s, Hollywood, Roman Polanski, Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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  1. Michael Kennedy
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Well, he did have Sharon Tate for a while. She was gorgeous and the Manson creeps murdered her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Bill Brandt
    Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    And his last statement seemed to have been the basis of his downfall – as with many a man. Still the way you describe this movie it is both amazing that it came from Poland at the height of the Cold War and that it could have been made at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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