January 30, 2014

Knife in the Water (1962)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

What it's about. Roman Polanski's feature debut as director, and also an early effort from his collaborator, Jerzy Skolimowski. The cast consists of just three people: manly man Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), his younger, hottie wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a nameless lanky young man (Zygmunt Malanowicz).

Andrzej and Krystyna drive to a lake to go sailing. Along the way, they encounter the young man. Andrzej convinces the youth to join them. During the two-day stint on the lake, Andrzej and the youth engage in one-upsmanship. Andrzej has all the advantages, except for an imposing switchblade that the youth can wield with considerable skill. Krystyna is forced into playing mediator between the competing male egos.

On the second day, Andrzej pockets the youth's knife, and goads him with it. This instigates a scuffle, which Andrzej "wins" when the youth tumbles overboard. Krystyna and Andrzej fear the youth has drowned. Following a heated argument, Andrzej swims to shore, purportedly to seek help. The youth, who has hidden behind a buoy, returns to the boat. Krystyna at first confronts him, then seduces him.

She sails to shore, and the youth departs. She sails to port, and rejoins her unhappy husband, who still believes the youth has drowned.

How others will see it. The low budget film proved highly successful. It won the foreign press prize at the Venice Film Festival, and later was nominated best foreign film at both the Oscars and BAFTA. Remarkably, it was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

The biggest beneficiaries were director Polanski and co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski, who have since enjoyed a half-century of film success. Knife in the Water proved to be the one and only feature film directed by Polanski in Poland, where he grew up and survived the Nazi occupation.

Today at imdb.com, the film has nearly 12K votes, certainly impressive for a black and white Polish language effort whose cast consists of three obscure actors. The user ratings are high at 7.6 out of 10, and unusually consistent across all demographics aside from viewers under 18.

How I felt about it. There are two aspects to evaluate for this film: the relationships of the characters, and the events that comprise the plot. Naturally, these two factors are intertwined.

Why does the youth join the couple? This question is easy to answer. Krystyna is a hottie, and the prospect of sailing is an interesting adventure for a drifter, particularly when no financial cost is involved.

Why does Andrzej want the youth to sail with them? Partly, he's looking for free labor. But the real reason has to do with his competitive nature. He wants to show up the youth, perhaps to impress Krystyna, who is already showing signs of tiring of him, or simply to affirm his manhood.

Why does Krystyna seduce the youth? Because it is a movie. There is no other good reason. He is a drifter and a stranger, alone with her on a boat distant from law or public intervention. She should be afraid of him. He could become violent with her. It is a bad idea to encourage his advances.

Is the marriage of Andrzej and Krystyna unhappy? There is certainly underlying tension. Still, even when it appears that the youth has drowned, it is hard to believe that Andrzej would call her a prostitute. That is a great way to have your wife hate you and divorce you, in that order.