Husband and wife Andrzej (Leon Mienczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are driving to a lake for a sailing trip when they almost run down a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz ). Andrzej invites the young man to accompany them on their boat but once on the water he struggles to get to grips with the boat. Tension mounts as Andrzej assumes a position of superiority over the young man and due to the attention that the latter shows Krystyna. As the boat begins to run into trouble it seems inevitable that already frayed tempers will snap.
The Critics Say…
“Almost all of its force – and it’s without doubt one of the most forceful feature debuts ever made – derives from truly magnificent black-and-white composition, credit for which must go to Polanski, his cinematographer Jerzy Lipman, and the camera operators too.” – Tim Robey, The Telegraph
Before Rosemary’s mysterious pregnancy and before J.J. Gittes was advised to ‘forget it,’ Roman Polanski had a young man walk on water in his claustrophobic Polish-language chamber-piece, Knife in the Water. Zygmunt Malanowicz plays the young hitchhiker picked up and invited to accompany a well-off married couple as they go sailing around a lake. He was around twenty-five years old when Knife in the Water was filmed yet he plays a character barely out of his teens, his blue-eyes-blond-hair boyishness and indefatigable energy convincingly bridging that age gap. Throughout the film Polanski juxtaposes the threat implied by this knife-carrying stranger with images of his divine innocence – a bird’s eye shot of him splayed out on the boat deck, posed like Christ on the cross complete with rope-coil halo is the theme at its most overt – but disregarding the symbolism of its telling the film is a captivating story of barely-repressed urges and wounded masculinity.
Knife in the Water is completely self-contained, using a cast of three – the husband, Andrzej (Leon Mienczyk), the wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) and the unnamed hitchhiker (simply named ‘Young Boy’ or ‘Young Man’) – and limiting the setting to the couple’s car and their boat. Similarly the plot is equally lean and initially explores the tension created when this stranger tags along, yet as the three of them float across the lake the tension gradually shifts from the motives of the unknown man to those of the bullying husband. Andrzej is a solid brick wall of a man, a formidable physical presence next to the lithe young boy. In fact, everything about these two men is opposite. On the surface Andrzej is a prototypical male presence, the pipe-smoking, brandy-drinking captain of his own ship; the young boy on the other hand is a naïve young stray who has possibly never set foot on a boat before and who is undoubtedly subordinate to Andrzej, at least in his eyes. Yet inwardly Andrzej is unsettled by his opposite, alert to the boy’s youthful dexterity and apparent fearlessness. The moment when Andrzej self-consciously tries to replicate the boy’s speed at five finger fillet (the game where one spreads their palm over a surface and stabs the point of a knife in the spaces between fingers as quickly – and accurately – as possible) is a rare display of his vulnerability. He soon overcomes it however by having the boy swab the deck of the boat, reassuming his position of power. To Andrzej, his boat is his domain.
Or is it? Throughout all of this Andrzej’s wife Krystyna has sat between the two men as a point of tension typical of narrative film. It is a love triangle waiting to be completed but we would be mistaken in thinking that Krystyna’s only role is as an object of attention for the two men. Gradually throughout the film she sheds inhibitions as she loses layers of her clothes and not merely in a sexualised way. At the start of the film she is a picture of propriety, somewhat subdued next to her husband, yet the freedom of the open water and the influence of the carefree young boy eventually allow her to adopt a position of supreme control over Andrzej. Krystyna is the most interesting character of the three, certainly the one that undergoes the biggest transition and Jolanta Umecka is utterly engrossing throughout, her performance one of surprising fierceness.
Roman Polanski makes great use of the boat’s limited space, finding creative ways to frame his characters through tangles of limbs and lines or over the shoulders of one or other of those on board. Despite the confined space the camera captures moments of great dynamism, such as the improvised tracking shot of the young boy crossing the floating logs or his precarious balancing of the boat during its turns, fearlessly dangling his body over the edge of the hull. It means that although Knife in the Water is confined to a very limited cast list and setting there is much to absorb. It certainly carries the same sense of dread that characterise some of Polanski’s most celebrated Hollywood films and although its conclusion isn’t quite as iconic as that of Chinatown (1974) it is similarly ambiguous.
More by Roman Polanski
Chinatown (1974) – “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Featuring one of the most iconic, unfulfilling conclusions in film history, Polanski’s twisted noir is undoubtedly one of the director’s best films. Jack Nicholson is in great form as J.J. Gittes, the sardonic private eye who finds himself in too deep.