Nóz w wodzie (1962)

KNIFE IN THE WATER (Nóz w wodzie)

(director/writer: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: Jakub Goldberg/Jerzy Skolimowski; cinematographer: Jerzy Lipman; editor: Halina Prugar; music: Krzysztof Komeda; cast: Leon Niemczyk (Andrzej), Jolanta Umecka (Krystyna), Zygmunt Malanowicz (Youth); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanislaw Zylewicz; Criterion Collection; 1962-Poland-in Polish with English subtitles)

“Builds up a sexual, generational, and violent tension in a straightforward manner, with hardly any dramatic contrivances.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roman Polanski’s (“Rosemary’s Baby”/”Repulsion “/”The Pianist”) first feature-length film, Knife in the Water, does all of the following so well: its economy in style, slow boiling build-up of tension, display of primitive machoism and sexuality, emotional games, humiliation over male competition, unsettling mood, and driving psychological force. It’s tautly scripted by the 27-year-old Polansky, as well as by Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowsk.

It opens as a comfortable couple, a fortyish sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and his much younger wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umeck), are driving early in the morning on a deserted road in a fancy car when they nearly run over a college-aged hitch-hiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) blocking the middle of the road. After cursing him out for acting like an asshole, the driver gives the impudent student a ride to the lakeside marina where his yacht is docked. The self-important driver then impulsively offers to take the youth sailing for a day’s excursion of relaxation, as he senses he can have fun putting down this inexperienced youth and showing off to his wife.

The arrogant and overconfident man is twice as old as the youth and finds enjoyment ordering the landlubber around, exposing his inexperience on boats, and proving through games that he’s more manly. There’s an undercurrent of sexual tension, as the attractive Krystyna parades around in a bikini. There’s also a haunting feeling of violence as the emotionally disturbed youth flashes a big hunting knife he’s carrying in his rucksack. The man knows the youth has been scoping out his attractive trophy wife, and that he feels inferior because he can’t have her. The bullying man feels better about himself while playing skipper and showing off to the youth his superiority while making him look bad in front of his wife.

It’s filmed almost entirely on the boat and in its deliberate pace builds up a sexual, generational, and violent tension in a straightforward manner, with hardly any dramatic contrivances. The ambiguous ending leaves room for much interpretation over this troubling relationship drama, as the skipper returns to land a little less assured of himself even though in his mind he won all the games aboard the yacht and still has his wife with him in the car.

It won the top award at the Venice Film Festival and a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.