Knife in the Water
Directed by Roman Polanski
R oman Polanski has never seemed particularly interested in the better angels of our nature. Even his recent Academy Award-winning film The Pianist, while ostensibly the story of a survivor, is equally an examination of how much misery one man can withstand at the hands of others. Indeed, the dark side of men’s souls has been a central theme in almost every Polanski film, from the friendly neighborhood Satanic cabal in Rosemary’s Baby to the incestuous and murderous Mulroy in Chinatown. But it was his first feature-length film, 1962’s Knife in the Water, that distilled the basic cruelty of human nature to a spare three-person cast and the claustrophobic confines of a sailboat. Now a new two-disc DVD edition of the film from the Criterion Collection offers a fascinating glimpse at a creative mind in development, tracing Polanski’s obsessions from his student films to his remarkably polished feature-length debut.
To a certain extent, this set tells the story of Polanski’s formative years. After a harrowing childhood—during which his parents were shipped to a concentration camp where his mother died—Polanski secured a place in the legendary Polish Film School at Lodz. It was during his five-year tenure at the school that he made the short films included in the second disc’s supplementary material. From early on, Polanski displayed his grim fascinations — “Murder,” a silent film of less than a minute, offers a straightforward view of the simple act of killing, giving no motive or backstory, just the act itself. The more complex “Break Up The Dance” contrasts lighthearted celebration with random violence, while the absurdist narrative of “Two Men and a Wardrobe” is a tapestry of scenes portraying man’s inhumanity toward man. But with Knife in the Water, Polanski created a multi-layered study of the simple and subtly barbaric extremes to which humans can stray.
The film is the tale of a well-to-do couple, Andrzej and Kristyna, who take a day trip to sail Poland’s lake country. On the way to their boat they nearly run over, then befriend a hitchhiking student. Taking a misdirected liking to the youth (marked by a mix of fatherly affection and macho competition), Andrzej invites him along on the boat. The ensuing conflict plays out with masterful skill, establishing suspense with controlled pacing and brilliant composition of frame. The high-definition transfer and fine restoration job make Polanski’s carefully constructed scenes all the more compelling. As a whole, the collection is a fitting testament to one of cinema’s great talents.