Knife in the Water (1963): Polanski’s Brilliant Debut, Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film

The brilliant Roman Polanski was turned down by the state’s acting school but was accepted as a student at the famous Polish Film School at Lodz.  During his five years (1954-1959) there, he appeared as an actor in a number of Polish films and directed several documentary shorts.

One of these, “Two Men and a Wardrobe,” a 15minute semi surrealistic exercise, won international awards, including third prize at the Brussels World’s Fair international competition of experimental films.

After graduating from the school, Polanski spent two years in Paris, where he made a short, “The Fat and the Lean,” a study of a master-slave relationship in which he played one of the two parts, the lean servant.

Returning to Poland, he made the award-winning short Mammals and his first feature film, Knife in the Water, a mature, subtle psychological triangle drama that catapulted the young director into international prominence.

Co-written by Polanski, Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski (who later became a famous director himself), the tale centers on a married couple, who pick up a young hitchhiker and invite him to a weekend on their boat. Psychological tensions and sexual conflicts begin to build up among the trio, eventually leading to violent conduct (and terrific climax).

The Polish government denounced the film, which motivated Polanski to leave his country and first move to Paris, and then to Hollywood, where he enjoyed a distinguished career (including “Chinatown”), until he fled to sexual scandal that involved the rape of a minor.

Oscar Context

Knife in the Water won the international critics’ prize at the Venice Film Fest and immediately catapulted Polanski to the league of major international directors.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign language film, but the winner was Fellini’s “81/2.”

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