By Julie Lavelle

Considered the first Polish film to spurn World War II as either text or subtext, Knife in the Water won the Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was heralded on the cover of Time Magazine. Roman Polanski was considered a wunderkind, and Knife on the Water proof that the new wave of experimental European cinema was not limited to the films produced by the French.

But this was not necessarily anything predictable. Following Roman Polanski’s graduation from Poland’s National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lodz, the communist government refused to release Knife in the Water. The Commission of the Ministry of Culture told Polanski that the film presented too “Western” a view of Polish society, and that it had “no social value,” which generally meant, according to Polanski, that it contained no communist propaganda. A frustrated Polanski shelved the film and left the country. The subsequent “thaw” in the Soviet Bloc that occurred shortly thereafter created a new openness in Polish culture, and Polanski was advised that the changed climate might make his film more acceptable to the Commission. Polanski returned to Poland, made a few required changes—including the addition of few scenes of dialogue regarding student life specifically to satisfy the Commission— and the film was accepted for release in 1962.

But when Roman Polanski’s name comes up, his struggle to express himself artistically in his early career is not usually the first, or even second, topic. Polanski has become one of those artists whose private lives have often eclipsed their art. The litany of horror and poor judgment that characterizes Polanski’s life is well known: A child of the war, when he was seven his father helped him escape the Nazi liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. While both his parents were deported to concentration camps, the young boy was forced to fend for himself in a dangerous and hostile environment. Though his father survived and returned to Krakow to claim him, his mother died in one of the death camps. Later, following the success of Rosemary’s Baby, the film that made him truly famous, the Manson family brutally murdered his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in one of the most infamous crimes of the twentieth century. Then, in 1977, he was charged in Hollywood with the rape of a 13-year old girl. For this, along with his romances with younger women, his tragic history, and his unsettling performance as a sadistic thug in Chinatown, Polanski has become a man reviled by many people around the world, a lightening rod for heated debate over whether or not it is necessary to understand the artist’s life in order to understand the artist’s work. Many have argued that the dark themes of psychological terror and violence that pervade Polanski’s films can be traced to the director’s own psyche.

Given the very direct hand that the Polish government had in shaping the final version of Knife in the Water, it’s also tempting to conclude that the finished product does not represent the unfettered vision of the artist that created it, and that Polanski, a Holocaust survivor who came of age at the height of the Cold War, would always be hampered by an oppressed imagination and that his work would always bear the taint of the artificiality of Soviet-influenced Eastern European communist culture.

But taken in the context of Polanski’s entire oeuvre, Knife in the Water is clearly an example of the themes that wind their way through Polanski’s most significant films, including Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist. Certainly surrealism, alienation, and lost innocence are themes common to the scarred post-war generation of Polish film students such as Polanski, Andrej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Jerzy Skolimowski, who were schooled in the shadow of the Lodz ghetto, from which only 877 Jews out of 230,000 survived the Nazi extermination program. However, Polanski’s films are distinct in that they are also characterized by sexual tension, claustrophobia, and psychological manipulation that is as specific to and recurrent in a Polanski film as the director’s seamless cinematic technique and visually compelling production design. His films are as classically beautiful and tightly constructed as they are psychologically disturbing and emotionally discomfiting. This has remained consistent throughout his career.

This blend of thematic complexity and visual craftsmanship is characteristic of all of Polanski’s work, but is strikingly evident in Knife in the Water. A classic romantic triangle, this story of a married couple that pick up a handsome, young, knife-wielding hitchhiker and take him on their boating trip in the Polish lake region could not be simpler in its narrative structure. But the competitive dynamic between the men, and the sexual tension of their contest over the woman, is played out through as a series of mind games that build a nerve-wracking suspense among the audience, as viewers wait for the inevitable explosion. Thus the film becomes less a traditional narrative with a neatly sewn up resolution than an exercise in slow-burning mystery and suspicion.

Polanski’s ability to build such a sustained level of anticipation has drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and Polanski’s self-assured presentation of the elements of cinematic skill is usually considered remarkable given his young age at the time (29) and his relative inexperience as a full-length filmmaker. Such confidence, and such talent, may have many origins. But as evident in Knife in the Water, wherever it comes from, it works.

Caitlin Written by: