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 15-minute 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.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

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.

A chamber piece for three chracters, the tale revolves around a couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), who are driving to a lake to go sailing.  Thy come upon a young man (Zygmunt Malanowicz). hitchhiking in the middle of the road, nearly hitting him, and Andrzej invites him to join them.

At the lake, instead of leaving the young man behind, Andrzej invites him to go sailing, and he accepts the offer, though not knowing much about sailing, he must learn many hard lessons.

Gradually, erotic tension builds between Andrzej and the hitchhiker as they vie for the attentions of Krystyna.

The title refers to the turning point in the film when Andrzej taunts the young man with the latter’s treasured pocket knife, which is then gets thrown overboard.

A fight ensues between Andrzej and the hitchhiker and the latter falls into the water. Andrzej and his wife search for him, but cannot find him and assume that he has drowned (he could not swim).

When the young man realizes that Andrzej has gone to fetch the police, he comes out from hiding behind a buoy on the lake and swims to the yach.  Krystyna tells him he is as bad as Andrzej but sexual attraction wins out and they have sex, off screen; we only see them kissing.

Krystyna sails back to the dock, the man jumps off and goes on his way before Andrzej takes charge again. Krystyna confides that the young man returned and she was unfaithful. Andrzej does not know what to believe, and at the road junction the car does not move.

Polanski leaves it up to the audience to decide the meaning of the knife. Clearly, there’s a knife that both men play with, and it could symbolize their respective masculinity.  A sharp object, knife has been used before in other films as a phallic symbol. Surprisingly, the knife is not used in a violent way in the battle between the men for control. In fact, when it falls into the water, both men are bewildered and look helpless, as if realizing their loss of the their tool of control.

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 the best foreign language film Oscar, but the winner was Fellini’s “81/2.”