KNIFE IN THE WATER (Roman Polanski, 1962)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Roman Polanski’s Nóz w wodzie opens with an unhappy couple on the road, like Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953). These two, however, are at home, although they are headed for a weekend’s yachting, and no landlubbers are ever “at home” on the water. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, a college student, and invite him along after nearly running him down. The nasty, professorial man, who hardly talked at all to his wife, jabbers away with the kid, playing a “game” of domination with his mind. Onboard the boat, rigging ropes cut across a three-shot of the couple and their guest. Once they set sail, the camera slips into erotic attention, noting the woman’s breasts, the boy’s buttocks, and the bare feet of both. The husband looms as an overseer, an orchestrator of we-don’t-quite-know-what. We know this, though: Nothing good is going to come out of this threesome.
     Polanski scripted his masterpiece with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg, but it is the visual realization that sparkles, marshaling a kaleidoscope of camera angles and distances, and punctuating the elemental, acrimonious drama with symbols, such as the knife in the water—a dropped penis; a lost male advantage. The boy is no innocent, but when compared with his jaded elder and adversary he is precious for his youth and we root for him painfully, terribly. We become the surrogate parent that the man in the film ought to have been.
     Polanski’s visual invention onboard the boat, recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s in Lifeboat (1944), accumulates into a metaphor for quietly desperately wrought possibilities within a restrictive framework that suggests Communist Poland itself. The Party’s leader in Poland announced this: Polanski’s film displays “the kind of thinking for which there is no place anywhere in the Communist world.”

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