Knife in the Water

(Nůz w wodzie, Roman Polanski, Poland, 1962)


Two men and a woman isolated on a boat. Bickering, sexual tension, power games. Weapons are ominously glimpsed, provisions run low, and the weather threatens to overthrow the last shred of the fragile status quo on deck. It sounds like the situation of Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989) – which is a good clue as to the international impact and influence wielded by Roman Polanski’s debut feature, effectively launching his global career after the shorts (Two Men and a Wardrobe [1958] and The Fat and the Lean [1961]) that so strikingly mixed surrealistic and Absurdist conceits with the cool, brooding unease of the existentialist ‘50s.


As an art movie of the early ‘60s, Knife in the Water certainly recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s disquieting portrayals of what Raymond Durgnat termed the “skin games” going on among beautiful people. But the film also hints (somewhat vaguely) at an undercover allegory of daily life in communist Poland. Indeed, the film was condemned within its homeland by the Communist Party First Secretary Gomulka; he disliked its fixation on the bourgeois element of society, and probably rightly sensed a critique of the Party’s more privileged members.


But Polanksi has always been, as well as a keen social satirist, a pop culture entertainer. Knife in the Water (co-written by the great Jerzy Skolimowski) stands up today as a suspenseful, intriguing tale of cat-and-mouse between a writer, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), his bored wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a blond, unnamed hitch-hiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz).


One optimistic commentator suggested that the value of 1998’s version of Psycho was in its pinpointing of a large tradition of films influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s original. Fortunately, Gus Van Sant will not have to arduously remake Knife in the Water for anyone seeing it today to realise that, in it, Polanski virtually set the template for the modern thriller genre.


As in many intimacy thrillers of the Cape Fear (1991) ilk, this married couple is presented, from the first frames, as being in the grip of a tearing malaise. Once the stranger is introduced, the film ceaselessly plays on tensions arising from social and class difference – especially the boy’s rough manners, lack of culture and fiendishly attractive spontaneity.


Polanski in 1962 was still a “promising” director, and not quite yet the master of image, sound, performance and storytelling that he would become, once and for all, with Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But Knife in the Water is a film that still impresses with the variety of visual perspectives (those plunging overhead shots taken from the mast!) and the proliferation of micro-intrigues that it engineers within a small, cramped space. On this level, it can serve as a fine model for any low-budget filmmaker today.


See also the audiovisual essay Roman Polanski: A Cinema of Invasion made by Cristina Álvarez López and me for an ACMI retrospective in October 2016.

MORE Polanski: Chinatown, Cul-de-Sac, Death and the Maiden, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, Repulsion, The Tenant, Tess, The Pianist

© Adrian Martin February 2000 / April 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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