Knife in the Water – Review

12 Aug

When I’ve talked about debut films from major directors who have proven themselves in their field, I always say something about how greatness starts somewhere, but it isn’t always such an easy beginning for film makers. One person who hit the jackpot with his debut feature film was Roman Polanski, who amongst all of the controversy surrounding him has still managed to make movies that people want to see and that people will love. His first film, Knife in the Water, which he made right after graduating from the National Film School in Łódź in Poland. This film earned him worldwide success and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

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Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are a married couple who are on their way to their boat for a day on the water. Along the way, they decide to pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who explains that he just walks around until someone decides to pick him up. Both the couple and the hitchhiker are completely different kinds of people and it isn’t long before Andrzej and the young man begin butting heads. As the group head out on the water, the two men begin fighting and humiliating each other, all with the intention of getting Krystyna’s attention. As the tension boils for the day throughout the night, the inevitable climax of violence bursts which may spell the end of happiness and a life of peace for everyone involved.

What’s so impressive about this movie is the tension that Polanski is able to build so well, even though this is his debut as a feature film maker. At the time, he was already pretty well known on the festival circuit for short films that he made while a student. Knife in the Water, however, marked the official beginning of his career, and what a beginning it was. It isn’t everyday that someone’s first film gets nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, Polanski didn’t win the award since he was up again Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is objectively the better film, but I have to admit that I enjoyed Knife in the Water a lot more.

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Amongst other things, the main draw of this movie is the tension. I can’t stress that word enough. The whole movie, being shot primarily just on the boat, has a very claustrophobic feeling, and it provided much difficulty in shooting the film. The characters in this movie come from completely different lifestyles which leads to a lot of arguing and debating about how things should be done on the boat. The entire situation still feels very realistic though, as if this were really happening and we were just spectators to the conflict. It also helps that this is just a beautifully shot film with the black and white cinematography working wonderfully with the river and the sky. The jazz soundtrack also provides appropriate and sometimes humorous background music to the different scenes. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of music, but that’s probably why it’s so interesting.

Finally, there are a lot of things the movie is trying to say without actually being on a side. Both of the male characters all have positive and negative sides to them, with the negatives showing themselves more and more as the movie goes on. It was a clever way to show the economic situation in Poland at the time when the upper and lower classes were at odds with each other, as they normally are in any society at any time. It also gives a unique perspective into male sexuality and desires, making these supposedly strong men into fawning children competing over the attention of a pretty lady. This movie is a great example of style, story, and substance while still remaining minimalistic.

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Knife in the Water is a very interesting, albeit very slow film by Roman Polanski. There’s nothing particularly exciting that happens in the film, but that’s almost the point. Events play out as events would play out, and nothing more. While the style can surely be appreciated, it’s also easy to appreciate the simple yet smart story as long with all of the texture that goes along with that. Many critics say that this is one of Roman Polanski’s best movies. I’m not sure I would say that, but it sure is a damn good one.

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