Knife in the Water: The Criterion Collection
It is quite common for first-time feature filmmakers to strive for simplicity, feeling their way with a genre exercise confined to one location and populated with the bare minimum of characters required to generate dramatic tension. On the surface, Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962) satisfies these obligations, hewing closely to the Aristotelian "Three Unities" of Time, Place, and Action. But this brash young director had to go and cut his safety net, placing his microcosmic class struggle on a boat, which forced Polanski and his crew to contend with the myriad challenges of shooting nearly the entire film in the water, an environ in which many veteran filmmakers have run aground. But Polanski, an experienced sailor himself, steers the ship clear of choppy waters, delivering a sly social critique that subverts expectations at nearly every turn. Forty years later, the film is arguably more surprising than at the time of its release for the way it seems to anticipate its inevitably formulaic Hollywood (by way of Australia) remake, Dead Calm. That film goes precisely where the audience expects it to go, making good on its promise of sex and violence. Polanski, on the other hand, was after something much more complex than a kill-or-be-killed thriller. All writing students know that the appearance of a weapon in the first act creates a very loaded expectation that said weapon will be used by the final curtain. Here, the weapon in question is foreshadowed in the title, and carried by the film's mysterious third component, a nameless hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who narrowly avoids being run over by an arrogant Party loyalist, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), and his trophy wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) and one immediately senses that Polanski is setting the stage for a traditional thriller in the mold of his later work. But this is not the case the script, co-written with the multi-talented Jerzy Skolimowski, is too conscious of its unlikely premise to go off in that pat direction. When Andrzej whimsically extends an invitation to the young man to join them on their day-trip, Polanski and Skolimowski are rightly intrigued by the elder's pathetic need to waste his brief vacation batting around what he clearly views as a helpless mouse, particularly on what seems designed as a romantic getaway. He feels challenged by the lad, who, full of youthful brio, provokes Andrzej. "You want to go on with the game?" he asks; to which Andrzej replies, "You aren't in my class kid, but come aboard." As they venture out into the lake, arduously dragging the boat through a channel into more scenic climes, Andrzej never misses an opportunity for cruel pedantry, making light of the hitchhiker's lack of sophistication and social graces. He's equally amused with the young man's persistence, egging him on after each humiliation. Through all of this, Krystyna remains mostly silent, passively puffing away on cigarettes, and interjecting only when annoyed. But the young man's presence is inescapable, and he makes a point of showing off by shimmying up the mast and lounging about shirtless. Andrzej not only notices this, he feeds off of it; indeed, it becomes readily apparent that he's brought the strapping youngster aboard to prove his own enduring virility and superiority. Though they often discuss the issue of "brain" vs. "brawn," there's little doubt that Andrzej means to be his physical better, too. But when the inevitable violent confrontation arrives, it is not the validation of manhood Andrzej would like it to be, leading inexorably to the conclusion this insecure old man has undoubtedly feared all along.
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Of Knife in the Water's many triumphs, perhaps its most praiseworthy aspect is Polanski's casually confident staging, which is most impressive at its least ostentatious. Sure, there are the attention-getting shots, like Andrzej and the hitchhiker playing their dangerous knife-game in the foreground while Krystyna flails playfully in the water with an inflatable crocodile, but there are dozens more that aren't so obvious. For instance, note the single take in which the men argue on the shore as Krystyna rides the boat into the channel's banks, coming to a halt so that she's positioned right in between them. The fluidity of the shot, and the logistics of nailing it, is simply mind-boggling, and yet it flows so naturally into the scene that it isn't really noticeable, nor is it meant to be. Throughout his career, critics have focused on Polanski's bravura showmanship, but what makes his cinema essential is his ability to make his camera invisible even as he's pulling off something so technically complex. This breathtaking command of the medium would eventually leave him in the 1980s, when he regressed into the kind of trite suspense filmmaking that he helped redefine two decades earlier. He returned to form with The Pianist (2002), and for the first time in years Polanski was no longer a bored technician but an engaged observer. Watching him reestablish contact with the daringly curious director of his earliest pictures, while putting to shame much of what passes for great filmmaking nowadays, only underscores the forward-looking brilliance of his first feature.
Criterion presents Knife in the Water in its original full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio with clean monaural Dolby Digital audio. The two-disc special edition features an engaging and richly informative "video introduction" (26 min.) with Polanski and Skolimowski in which they discuss their lively writing process, their relationship with composer Krzystof T. Komeda (whose jazzy score gives the film a rebellious undercurrent), and their struggles with the Polish film commission in getting the film made and released. The introduction's most enjoyable moment has Polanski boasting about his ingenuity in keeping the camera steady without dealing with the time-consuming hassle of setting up a tripod, from which he segues into a swipe at the Dogme '95 style of filmmaking and its shaky inelegance. Disc Two features a collection of the director's illuminating short films from 1957 to 1962, allowing one to chart the development and refinement of Polanski's visual vocabulary. They include "Murder," "Teeth Smile," "Break up the Dance," "Two Men and a Wardrobe," "The Lamp," "When Angels Fall," "The Fat and the Lean" and "Mammals." Rounding out the extras is a stills gallery. Dual-DVD keep-case.