Knife In The Water, 1962. 8/10

Roman Polanski’s first feature film is a minimalist thriller. A couple (Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umecka as Andrzej and Krystyna) go sailing with a stranger, the unnamed hitchhiker, played by Zgmant Malanowicz. The two guys don’t get along, and neither do the husband and wife. The husband is probably ten years older than the wife, and the young guy is almost as many years younger than she.

It’s difficult to know how and where to begin with this commentary; the plot is almost meaningless. But not quite. The last twenty minutes or so are very dramatic–first it seems that one of the guys drowns, and then the other. Both come out ok, but only the woman actually knows that.

In a way, it’s a coming of age story for the young guy. He’s already a vagabond; he shows up the husband’s sadistic pranks, and seduces his wife. Andrzej proves to be a jerk all the way around. Initially, both he and Krystyna seems to delight in messing with the youth, and the couple has an easy familiarity.

The knife itself (which belongs to the hitchhiker), becomes literally the bone of contention between the guys. It symbolizes perhaps youth and power, or maybe just the one advantage the younger guy has over the older one. Andrzej has to possess it; in doing so he provokes a fight which results in the young guy going overboard along with the knife.

Krystyna and Andrzej think that he has drowned, but he pops up alongside the boat just after Andrzej jumps in to again attempt a rescue (but all is not what it seems, as we later discover). That’s the hitchhiker’s chance to seduce Krystyna. It seems odd that she wants that; she’s just upbraided him for trying to out-macho Andrzej.

He skips off the boat before it docks–and where we unexpectedly find Andrzej waiting. She doesn’t bother to mention the boy’s reappearance until they drive away. Her story sounds so incredible that her husband won’t even credit that she cheated on him.

Her role is the most interesting of the three. That doesn’t make her the best person here, though. By the end, she has plenty of resentment built up against Andrzej; he’s not only taunted the other guy seemingly to death, but called her a “whore” and such for telling him so. She’s used by both of the guys, and she uses them both.

We’re left with Andrzej stopped at a crossroads where a the sign pointing toward to the police station. Since the young guy is still ship-shape, so to speak, Andrzej has nothing to worry about; but the real issue is what will happen between him and his wife.

It’s not very clear, but, apparently, Andrzej intended to swim ashore to get the police when he realized that the younger guy had probably drowned; that’s why his wife isn’t surprised to see him when the boat docks. Since we see Andrzej and Krystyna argue about what to do, we can infer this much (thanks to IMDb reviewer MartinHafer, 09/24/05). That was the film’s intention, but we never see him tell her what he’s actually up to when he goes back in the water.

The weekend is neatly isolated from each of their lives–it’s as though nothing happened. On the other hand, things won’t be the same for any of them, especially the couple. It works out for the hitchhiker. He’s had an adventure, and been victimized along the way; but he got something of a ‘pay-off’ gift from Krystyna.

The relations among this trio were getting steadily more relaxed and equitable, particularly when they hunkered down in the cabin on the stormy night. At that point, things could’ve gone any of a number of ways. In fact, had the hitchhiker never left the knife lying around, it’s doubtful that the fight and subsequent ‘drownings’ would’ve taken place.

But the amount of trust built up was precisely what triggered the dramatic switch; the young guy let his guard down. We can’t assume that he was merely a passive recipient of Andrzej’s ‘orders’. If anything, he broke down the older guy’s defenses enough to almost change him. We can take the voyage itself as a metaphor for life; thus its almost dreamlike, isolated quality of its story within the larger frame story ashore–which is, after all–the resumption of ordinary existence for these three people.

This is a very thoughtful movie; and, despite the drifting plot, very tense, and thoroughly entertaining. The ending was perhaps a bit too vague to match the precision of the lead-up. Still, the premise was elegantly simple, and the acting superb.

8/10

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