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Story of Film - October 2013
Remind Me

Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water (1962) was Polish director Roman Polanski's remarkably assured first feature film, and, as it would turn out, his only Polish feature to date. It was an unusual film to come out of the Polish film industry, which at the time was controlled by the ruling Communist party, and leaned heavily towards promoting socialist ideology. Knife in the Water was a character study about a bored and materialistic husband and wife who pick up a handsome young hitchhiker and take him on vacation aboard their boat. The young man's presence upsets the delicate balance of the couple's marriage, and exposes their weak bond.

Polanski had spent five years at the prestigious Polish Film School in Lodz, had acted in films, and had directed several well-received shorts. He had written the script for Knife in the Water with two film school colleagues, Jakub Goldberg and future director Jerzy Skolimowski, in a feverish three days and nights of continuous work. Polanski submitted the script to the Ministry of Culture for official approval and production funding, but was rejected several times before finally winning approval. Of the film's three stars, only Leon Niemczyk, who played the husband, was a professional actor. To play the wife, Polanski chose Jolanta Umecka, a music student who had never acted, but who was physically right for the role. Then the 29-year-old Polanski announced that he would play the part of the young hitchhiker himself. Colleagues tried to dissuade him, telling him that since it was his first feature, it would be difficult for him to both direct and star. According to the head of the State film unit Kamera, Jerzy Bossak, Polanski stripped naked and asked Bossak if he was not handsome enough to play the part. Bossak said he was not, and if he persisted, Bossak would delay the film. Polanski finally agreed to cast a drama student, Zygmunt Malanowicz. Although Malanowicz was physically right, he was an inexperienced actor, and in the end, Polanski ended up dubbing all of the character's dialogue himself. He also ended up having another actress dub Umecka's lines.

The production was one disaster after another. Rumors of orgies on location, profligate spending, and suggestions that the film did not uphold communist ideology filtered back to the editor of a Polish magazine, which sent a reporter to investigate. The ensuing article was scathing, and Bossak arrived on location and confronted Polanski. The two men argued, and it became clear to Bossak that the director was too individualistic to conform to the state's rigid rules. At the same time, Polanski's personal life was also falling apart. His wife, actress Barbara Lass, told him she wanted a divorce, plus he was injured in a car accident. In spite of all the problems, Polanski stayed focused, and Knife in the Water has all the qualities that would characterize his style: minimal dialogue, visual storytelling, artfully composed images, controlled pacing, and building tension.

Knife in the Water opened for a limited run in Warsaw, and was dismissed by most Polish critics. Finally, it was officially denounced by the leader of the Polish communist party, Wladyslaw Gomulka, as a film that "displayed the kind of thinking for which there is no place anywhere in the Communist world." Plans for a publicity campaign for the film were cancelled, and it was clear that Polanski's career in Poland was over. Polanski got in his car and headed west, ending up in Paris where he lived in poverty for several months. Then Knife in the Water was shown at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. It began getting attention around the world, and premiered in the U.S. at the first New York International Film Festival in 1963. The following spring, Knife in the Water was nominated for an Academy Award® as Best Foreign Film. Although Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) won the Oscar®, Polanski's career was launched. He moved to London, where he made his next film, Repulsion (1965).

For nearly 40 years, Polanski did not make another film in Poland. Finally in 2001, he returned to Warsaw to shoot some scenes for The Pianist (2002), which earned him an Academy Award as Best Director.

Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Stanislaw Zylewicz
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Jakub Goldberg
Cinematography: Jerzy Lipman
Editor: Halina Prugar
Art Direction: Boleslaw Kamykowsky
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Leon Niemczyk (Andrzej), Jolanta Umecka (Krystyna), Zygmunt Malanowicz (The Young Man).

by Margarita Landazuri



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