Knife in the Water
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The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Knife in the Water offers an excellent opportunity to see the beginning of director Roman Polanski's career. In addition to Polanski's debut feature film, this DVD package includes a second disc packed with eight shorts that Polanski filmed from 1957 through 1962, including "Two Men and a Wardrobe," which won several awards. Many of these shorts, most notably "Mammals," contain themes of aggression and entrapment -- important themes when considering Knife in the Water, as well as other Polanski films, such as Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, and Rosemary's Baby.

Knife in the Water resulted when Polanski called Jerzy Skolimowski and asked to get together for developing a screenplay. Polanski had recently graduated from film school and Skolimowki (who would soon make a name for himself as the director of Deep End and other films) was still in school. They worked several long nights on the screenplay, honing the dialogue until it became a model of economy, eliminating a word here and a syllable there. (Much of this background information is revealed in the DVD's introduction -- a 25-minute interview session with Polanski and Skolimowski.)

With a cast of just three actors -- no one else appears in the film -- Knife in the Water is marked by its silences and its precision. The movie wastes little time in establishing its conflicts. During the credits sequence, we see a man (Leon Niemczyk) and woman (Jolanta Umecka) in a car. They don't talk. They keep their eyes on the road. Soon the man becomes concerned with the woman's driving, even grabbing the steering wheel. Soon he takes over, and almost immediately they encounter a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who forces cars to stop by standing in the middle of the road, not moving as vehicles bear down upon him. Soon the two men are set in opposition. The husband doesn't mind the hitchhiker's presence because it allows him to flaunt his superiority. He even asks the young man to accompany them on a day of sailing.

The husband and wife are sophisticated and well familiar with the routine of sailing. They hardly say a word as they prepare for setting sail. The division of labor is well established and they go about their duties instinctively. However, the presence of the young man adds a new component to the day's events as the husband orders him about like a servant, a role the young man does not take to easily. He packs a large knife, an obvious sign of his virility, and the loss of this knife forms a major plot point that turns the masculine aggression (previously fought only with words) into a brief flury of violence. Meanwhile, the woman, who starts out looking rather ordinary, sporting a hideous set of eyeglasses with cat eye lenses, becomes more and more beautiful as the drama progresses. The men are not literally fighting over the woman. Their battle is about power and virility. In lieu of a physical goal for their battle, she becomes the prize who goes to the victor, although she means little to either the young man or the husband--except as evidence of their success.

Knife in the Water remains one of Polanski's best films. It showcases his great skill at working with actors and getting their best performances. Knife in the Water also features magnificent black-and-white compositions, provided by Polanski (who framed each shot of the movie) and cinematographer Jerzy Lipman. The quiet, stark surroundings are marked by tall grasses along the canals and well-spaced trees at the horizons. This is a marvelously designed and photographed story, with a trio of excellent performances by the leads.

Upon the film's release in Poland 1962, Communist party chief Wladyslaw Gomulka denounced Knife in the Water for its Western attitudes; however, the movie received great acclaim at film festivals internationally. Eventually, it was nominated for a best foreign language film Academy Award, the first film from Poland to be so honored. Regardless of the accolades, however, Polanski faced few opportunities for making subsequent films in Poland. So, he soon left Poland for the greater artistic freedom of the West, first landing in England where he made Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, and Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers) in quick succession.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Knife in the Water is somewhat light on special features that directly relate to Knife in the Water. You get the aforementioned 25-minute video interviews with Polanski and Skolimowski and a selection of publicity and production stills, but unlike many Criterion Collection sets, you won't find an audio commentary or a video documentary about the production (but then again audio commentaries and video documentaries are frequently the most overemphasized elements in DVD packages, primarily included to give the appearance that the video company has sweetened the deal). In this case, however, the package is sweetened with a generous selection of Polanski's short films--by my count, all eight of his pre-Knife in the Water output. These films amount to over 70 minutes of additional creativity from Roman Polanski. This is such a significant selection of work that the DVD package probably should be titled "Knife in the Water and Eight Short Films." As is, the short films are in danger of being overlooked. But they are an important group of movies in understanding Polanski's career, particularly his predilection for themes involving humiliation and aggression.

Note: The DVD's liner notes indicate "the step function has been disabled during the playback of the feature film"--upon the request of Roman Polanski, who was closely involved with the preparation of the DVD package. However, the step feature worked fine on the three DVD players that I tested. Unfortunately, though, the fast forward and rewind features have been turned off, which is extremely annoying. On several occasions, I missed a bit of dialogue and hit my remote control's rewind button to catch the dialogue again--but no such luck. You can't do it. You can only navigate among the 14 chapter stops.

Knife in the Water is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection is a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound. The DVD includes a collection of director Roman Polanski's short films from 1957-1962: Murder, Teeth Smile, Break up the Dance, Two Men and a Wardrobe, The Lamp, When Angels Fall, The Fat and Lean, and Mammals. Special features: video interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski and a collection of rare publicity and production stills. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.