Knife in the Water (1962, aka Nóż w wodzie)


An upper-class couple (Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umecka) invites a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) to go boating with them and…

Reaction & Thoughts:

“If two men are on board, one’s the skipper.”

Knife in the Water is “a motion picture” in every sense of the phrase. Like a current of water that gradually takes you away from shore, this slow-burn Polish thriller slowly pulls you into a purely cinematic experience — the film relies almost exclusively on ingenious camera setups to explore a thorny “ménage à trois.”

Knife in the Water was the first feature-length movie directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown). The director co-wrote the script with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. The film demonstrates that Polanski was good from the get-go. The film displays Polanski’s strengths as a filmmaker and gives hints of things to come.

Like all great thrillers, Knife in the Water doesn’t show its cards all at once. This is a superb exercise in minimalism. It’s truly remarkable that such a small scale, low-budget movie is able to wrestle with so many complex issues. Gender roles in society, social hierarchies and class warfare are among the issues explored by Polanski.

Knife in the Water is riddled with symbolism. A plethora of phallic symbols — a pocket knife, the sailboat mast, etc. — are cleverly used to amplify the sexual tension. Even an ordinary game of pick up sticks is used to convey all sorts of ideas.

There are only three characters — wife, husband and drifter — in the entire film. Polanski spends the entire movie dissecting the differences between these individuals. And each person serves a specific function in the movie. Despite the fact that they are cyphers for something else, all three characters feel like real people.

The husband is a snobbish wealthy man, a stand-in for conformism and the status quo. The drifter is a standard-bearer for non-conformism and proletarian angst. The wife is trapped between the two extremes. Although the film mostly chronicles the power struggle between the two men, it is the wife who emerges victorious and the implications of her triumph are incredibly interesting — it’s feminism by osmosis!

As I suggested before, Knife in the Water was shot in a simple but highly stylish manner. Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman (A Generation and Kanal) finds ingenious ways to maximize limited resources. Lipman’s inventive camerawork changes ordinary sequences into extraordinary moments with complex emotions.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

What is remarkable about Knife in the Water is that this is the work of a first-time filmmaker working with amateur actors and an almost non-existent budget. I heartily recommend it to hardcore fans of Polanski and people who enjoy psychological thrillers. Trivia: Knife in the Water was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the very first Polish movie to receive the honor. B&W, 94 minutes, Not Rated.

4 responses to “Knife in the Water (1962, aka Nóż w wodzie)

  1. Need to see this one again—our very first look at a world through the eyes of this darkly brilliant auteur. He is one of my favorite directors of all time—I love Repulsion, Chinatown and Ghost Writer and even Ninth Gate, but to me Rosemary ‘s Baby remains his masterpiece!!
    Stay home and watch more movies, Binford!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Though I’ve never seen ‘Knife in the Water’, your description of it reminded me a bit of ‘Dead Calm’…if you’ve seen both, do they have similar storylines? And yeah, the symbolism…quite obvious in that second photo above!

    Liked by 1 person

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