Knife in the Water (1962) was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and the only one he made in Poland (and in Polish) before leaving for the West and English-language cinema. It is evidently of a piece with Polanski’s subsequent work, in terms of its nihilism, its chill and creepiness, its generally smothering affect.
Knife in the Water is quite strikingly different from the films made by the Polish directors of the previous generation (or half-generation, given that these directors were only a decade or so older than Polanski) like Wajda and Munk.. In Polanski’s fillm, there is no reference to World War II, or to Poland’s other historical traumas; and no sign of the Italian neorealist influence that was evident in Wajda and Munk.
Polanski seems to evacuate history and society quite deliberately, as his film has only three characters (no other human beings are seen, not even as extras), and unfolds first in a car driving through uninhabited forest, and then largely on a yacht, sailing through a series of lakes that mostly seem devoid of human habitation. We see, at best, the debris, byproducts, or tools of human labor: construction vehicles standing idle, because it is Sunday; logs floating in a lake, near the shore, waiting to be sent downstream. The car seen at the beginning of the film is left parked overnight; when the owners return to it the next morning, at the end of the movie, the windshield wipers have been stolen. But we do not see the vandals, or get any hint of who they were.
In the context of “actually existing socialism,” it’s hard to read this as anything but a violent, willful negation of historical consciousness, of socialist (or any other sort of) humanism, of social realism, and of political and social “responsibility.” Polanski’s attitude is brattishly asocial or anti-social, even though, at the same time, the film suggests that there is no escaping society. For we need other people to exploit, or to demonstrate our superiority over.
All this is expressed as much in the style of the film as in its script and story. There are lots of claustrophobic closeups, but rarely of just one character: usually two, or even all three, of the actors are squeezed into a single shot. Often one character is quite close to the camera, but the other two are also present, slightly further back. Thus we get the in-your-face, affect-heavy effect of close-ups, but — how do I put this? — without the kind of overflowing intensity that one gets from, say, the close-ups of Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (or for that matter, the close-ups in many of Samuel Fuller’s films). Instead, there’s a tension: the affect not of any of the characters, but between them, the affect of the void. In the background, and in the rare longer shots, there is always the wilderness, which never looks inviting, but either blank or ominous. There’s no identification with these characters, then, despite how we are almost thrust in their faces. The film is suffused with the affects of coldness and cruelty.
(I should also mention the soundtrack, as well as the images. The score, by Polanski’s frequent collaborator (until his untimely death in 1969) Krzysztof Komeda, has a tense, 50s-jazz sort of vibe. But this score doesn’t suffuse the film, it only punctuates it at certain moments — or rather, I should say the reverse: the score is itself frequently punctuated by silence, long stretches when all we hear is ambient noise. This punctuation, or scansion, makes for a lot of the tension in the movie).
The three characters are a 40-something married couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a younger (20ish?) student or drifter, who remains unnamed (Zygmunt Malanowicz). [Digressive Note: I see from IMDB that Leon Niemczyk just died this past November, and that shortly before his death he appeared in David Lynch's Inland Empire, which is probably the one new film that I am most itching to see]. Andrzej and Krystyna are driving through the woods, when they encounter the young man hitchhiking; they give him a ride, and then invite him aboard their yacht.
The social world is present in the film precisely, but only, through what we learn of these peoples’ backgrounds. Andrzej is apparently a sportswriter, and he and Krystyna evidently belong to the Party elite (what in the Soviet Union was called the nomenklatura), as is evidenced by the very fact that they own a car and a yacht (as well as, Krystyna says at one point, a 4-room apartment). They also exude a sort of smugness, deriving from a reflexive sense of privilege, which they completely take for granted.
The younger man says very little about his background, and what he does say is unreliable. He describes himself variously as a drifter, a hiker, and a student; he seems, like most of the population in this alleged “workers’ state”, to have few or no possessions. Aside, that is, from the large, mean-looking switchblade knife he is prone to display at every opportunity.
Given the deliberate decontextualization of all these differences, and the limitaitons in what we know about the characters’ pasts, the “class struggle” — as well as the generational struggle between the two men — gets played out in a Hobbesian or Darwinian register, rather than in a Marxist (or Freudian) one.
All the exchanges between the three characters are driven by buried suggestions of aggression and violence. Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s relationship is evidently several degrees below dead. Andrzej insults and patronizes the hitchhiker, then invites him aboard through a sort of vicious condescension. The young man accepts the invitation through a kind of swagger — he seems anxious to take on a dare. (We first encounter him when he stops Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s car by standing in the middle of the road as it approaches — giving them the sole alternatives of stopping for him, or running him over).
The outing quickly turns into a macho duel (a pissing contest?) between the two men, with the woman serving as spectator and judge of the contest, as well as being its stake. Andrzej asserts the authority of his age, of his social position, of his superior knowledge as a seaman and a social insider, and of his authority as the “skipper” of the ship. The young man responds with arrogant cockiness, physical daring (he shimmies up the mast at one point, and — on a dare — holds a pot of boiling water in his bare hands at another), and displays of his superior virility (on account of his youth, and also through overt phallic displays — there’s no ambiguity as to the connotations of the knife). (It’s worth noting in this respect, and apropos of the title of the film, that Andrzej is unable to appropriate the knife — he can only deprive the younger man of it by throwing it overboard).
In this contest, the younger man gets the better of Andrzej — at least in the sense that he gets to bed the woman, and then walks away scot-free. But summarizing the plot of the film in this way is misleading. For one thing, the real “winner” (to the extent there is one) is Krystyna. She manages both to put the younger man in his place, and to get the sexual gratification from him that her husband fails to provide. And she manages thereby also to humiliate and subjugate Andrzej, taking his pretensions down a few notches, and altering the balance of power between them in her favor. At the end of the film, Andrzej is (metaphorically) paralyzed or castrated, stopping the car at a (both literal and metaphorical) crossroads, and not sure which way to go.
Krystyna’s “victory” also marks a defeat for the younger man. His virility has been reduced to a merely instrumental status. For all his confident and contempt-filled self-assurance, he turns out to have been nothing but a go-between, or a tool, in the power struggle between the couple. (We realize that Andrzej and Krystyna are the people who really hate one another, although this is not expressed openly at any point in the film. The young man does get to walk away at the end of the film: he’s not trapped in the situation the way the two of them are. But the young man also hasn’t gained anything from the contest, besides (we presume) a fleeting instant of pleasure; and he has amply paid for this with the loss of his knife.
I still haven’t managed to explain what is the most powerful thing about Knife in the Water, which is its obliqueness. Nothing of the contest (or three-way war) that I have been describing is quite there on the surface. I don’t mean that it’s hidden, exactly: the three characters are all fully aware of what’s going on, and so is the audience. But in this strange battle, no blows are ever thrown directly. Rather, the fighting is all done in the form of insinuations and implications. The young man doesn’t actually threaten the older couple with his knife, for instance. He doesn’t have to; the mere presence of the knife is enough. Throughout the film, even the most casual statements and gestures are fraught with heavy, and usually ugly, meanings. But for this very reason, nearly all the film’s statement and gestures are (merely?) casual and impromptu. One of the many things the film withholds from us is the hysterical sense of rising to a climax of craziness or viciousness.
By the end of the film, we are forced to realize that what we have witnessed is nothing more than a series of futile stupidities. And this, I think, is the deepest sense in which the film is nihilistic and anti-humanist. Polanski offers us no redemption; even more, he condemns our very desire for redemption (or for narrative resolution) by so deliberately frustrating it. This is profoundly subversive and unsettling, both to the “socialst” state in which the film was originally made, and in the hypercapitalistic state of things within which we experience the film today. Macho contests are a staple of Hollywood cinema, after all, and they generally end by promising some sort of redemption through violence. (Think of nearly anything from Straw Dogs to Reservoir Dogs, or from Charles Bronson to Sylvester Stallone to Mel Gibson). Even Clint Eastwood, who uses his iconic status as a hero of masculine violence in order to demystify and deconstruct such violence from within, never made anything nearly as disillusioning as this. In Knife in the Water, even the emblematic gesture with which the masculine hero tosses away his badge, or his gun, after having inflicted and survived all the violence — even this gesture is reduced to triviality and stupidity. Polanski leaves us with no alibis.