Polish Cinema: Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962, Poland)

Knife in the Water is the auspicious debut feature from director Roman Polanski. It was the first and last film he would make in his native Poland, due to a lack of artistic freedom. Knife was met with a great deal of resistance from Polish censors, who found the lack of social message in the film disturbing. As a result, certain dialogues were added to the film to make it appear more concerned with social issues. The film was unsuccessful in Poland but was a great success at international festivals, and eventually became the Polish entry at the Oscars. An image from the film even graced the cover of Time Magazine.

Jerzy Skolimowski, who co-wrote the script with Polanski, has claimed the Greeks were an influence on the film. The events are limited to a single day, a single space (a Polish lake), and three characters - a married couple and a young male hitchhiker. While no doubt influenced by budget limitations, there is effectiveness in the film’s lean and spare style. The man of the couple is played by veteran actor Leon Niemczyk, while the wife and interloper were played by two actors with relatively little experience (Jolanta Umecka and Zygmunt Malanowicz).

The Oedipal conflict that plays out between the three onboard the ship is a slow burn. We feel the dread that something bad will happen, but we are not exactly sure how it will unfold. The film’s steamy final act and cryptic final scene are highly memorable. Despite being a first feature, Knife in the Water has a fluidity and command of form which would continue as Polanski became a major director on the world stage. As such, this film is important not only in the context of Polish cinema but also the thriller genre overall.


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