(Knife in the Water)
Director: Roman Polanski
Production: Kamera Film Unit for Film Polski; black and white, 35mm; running time: 94 minutes. Released Poland, 1962. Filmed 1962 in Poland.
Producer: Stanisław Zyewicz; screenplay: Jerzy Skolimowski, Jakub Goldberg, and Roman Polanski; photography: Jerzy Lipman; sound: Halina Paszkowska; music: Krzysztof Komeda.
Cast: Leon Niemczyk ( Andrzej ); Jolanta Umecka ( Christine/Krystanal ); Zygmunt Malanowicz ( Young man ).
Award: International Film Critics Award (Fipresci), Venice Film Festival, 1962.
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* * *
Roman Polanski emerged as a highly individual artist when he made his directorial debut with a few short films— Dwaj ludzie z szafa ; his graduation project Gdy spadaja aniloy; Gros et le maigre , produced in France; and the grotesque Ssaki . These films startled audiences and critics alike and won praise at various film festivals. They amazed viewers with their unusually innovative approach of pure experiment combined with elaborated philosophical import and elements of absurd humor. The critics anxiously awaited his first feature-length film which came in 1962 and was entitled Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) .
What was so startling about Nóz w wodzie ? At first glance, it seems to be a simple story with neither an attractive setting nor much external dramatic action. However, within the ordinary plot a bitter internal drama is played out in the form of a minor allegory. It is an intimate drama of three people in the enclosed space of a sailboat in the middle of a lake, and it takes place over the 24 hours of a single Sunday. A young hitchhiker steps out in front of the car of an elegant married couple, Andrzej and Christine. The hitchhiker's clumsiness appeals to the older man, who finds in it an opportunity to show off his own strength, make fun of the hitchhiker and provoke him. Andrzej invites him to go out sailing with him and his wife. Their relationship gradually comes to a critical point; more and more, Andrzej asserts his role as captain and forces the youth into an audacious reprisal. Somewhere in the relationship between the two men stands Christine. The conflict reaches a climax, when, in one of their quarrels, Andrzej throws the boy's knife into the water. The boy jumps in after it but doesn't come up. Andrzej attempts to rescue the boy, but the latter had only pretended to drown and has returned to the boat, where he again confronts Christine. With morning the drama ends. The boy goes off, and the husband and wife, having cleared up the situation, fall back into the routine of their peculiar conjugal life.
Nóz w wodzie is a cold work that exposes the general norms of human relations defined by generational conflicts and social factors. The drama is characterized by short, clipped pieces of dialogue, each of which serves to determine the character and conduct of the protagonists. Both the beginning and end of the film are wrapped in silence and the quiet, disturbing isolation of the "heroes." Some critics noted, at the time of the film's release, the similarity between Polanski's development and the directorial style of Michelangelo Antonioni. Nevertheless, this work bears a uniquely individual directorial stamp. The film opens with an automobile ride; across the windshield and the faces of the husband and wife flit the shadows of branches and tree trunks. The image is cold and grey. So, too, are the world and the relationship of the central couple into which the hitchhiker intrudes. The enclosed space of the boat surrounded by water intensifies the drama of the situation and the coldness and hopelessness of the human relationships. There is an intrinsic drama hidden somewhere beneath the exterior of these people who have nothing to say to each other. The boy serves as a kind of catalyst for the development of the action, for the exposure of relationships and character. But the authors present everything as a mere game which, in the end, can start all over again despite the malicious accusations and the disclosure of egoism and cowardice; in spite of the pain and cruelty of an empty conjugal existence, everything remains as it had been. The drama is heightened by the brilliant camera work of Jerzy Lipman, which captures both the surroundings and the people in cold, grey tones; looks at them as a tangle of ropes, objects and bodies; and uses discrete images to portray the contrasts between expressions and utterances. The attention concentrated on the strangeness of human communication is emphasized further by the jazz elements in Krzysztof Komeda's music
Nóz w wodzie was the confession of a generation, the warning of dangerous trends of philistinism, thoughtlessness, and authoritarianism. It is at this general level that the film is important today as well, and it has lost nothing of its suggestiveness in the years since its first appearance. It is a masterpiece which has risen above generational conflict to confront the viewer with the universal problem of human intolerance.