Knife in the Water was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and I believe it’s the only feature film he’s made in his native Poland. It’s very minimalist, and in the interview on the Criterion DVD he talks about how he wanted to do something very simple and stripped down for his first film. There are only three characters, two men and one woman. One of the men is middle-aged, and I believe the woman is his wife, although I wasn’t sure whether she was his mistress instead. They are on their way to the lake district in Poland to do some sailing when they pick up a young hitchhiker who is a university student. They end up taking with them on the boat, and the two men spar and play dominance games.
It’s well-structured and despite the simple set-up does a good job of creating some complexity out of the materials, but I can’t say I found the story all that compelling. The PR around the DVD tries to sell it as a kind of thriller, but despite the fact that it builds up to something approximating violence at the climax, it isn’t really about the thrills. It’s more of an intimate, slow-build psychological study. Rather than thrills, it builds tension.
I did find it visually striking, and it was interesting to hear Polanski talk about how his initial inspiration was just his love of the lake district as a setting and his desire to find some kind of story to tell in that setting. He also talks about how he was studying to be a visual artist before he turned to film, and I actually think the main thing I admire about the films of his I’ve seen is their visual beauty. In this film it isn’t just the landscape and setting either, but the way he composes his shots on the boat to frame the characters. Often he’ll have part of a face in claustrophobic close-up with the other two characters in the near distance. In fact he varies the sense of the three characters being crammed together in a tight space and being completely separated from each other on different parts of the boat. They are pulled together and then pushed apart.
The film apparently had a pretty big impact internationally because it was so unusual for something coming out of an Eastern Bloc country. Within Poland it was denigrated for being too Westernized and not a proper work of social realism. It was largely because of that internal reception that Polanski left for France, where his sister was already living. Knife in the Water is a bit too austere for me, but it certainly announces someone with a tremendous affinity for visual composition and psychological nuance.