Return to Table of Contents
21 Grams page 2page 3
Metadatapage 2page 3
DVDpage 2page 3
American Cinematographer Magazine

Knife in the Water (1962)
The Criterion Collection,

Director Roman Polanski began his illustrious career with this taut and incisive suspense thriller, a 94-minute feature that involves just three characters and plays out almost entirely on a sailboat. The story seems simple enough, but the action is rife with metaphor: while driving to a dock to board their boat for a leisurely cruise, a well-off husband and wife, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), nearly run over a heedless male hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). After calming his temper, Andrzej senses an existential challenge in the wind, and he invites the young man along for the trip. This sets into motion a battle of wills with Oedipal overtones, as the rivals engage in a series of petty competitions that hint at much larger stakes, both psychological and political.

As usual, the Criterion Collection has done a fine job of bringing a classic film to DVD. Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman's beautifully composed black-and-white images are presented in a pristine transfer that preserves their full tonal range. The disc's liner notes reveal that the "new, high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm fine-grain master positive manufactured from the original camera negative, with the participation of Roman Polanski. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original optical tracks, and restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle." Certainly, this presentation is a marked improvement over all previous home-video versions.

Despite its age, Knife in the Water remains a fresh and compelling cinematic experience, thanks in large part to a subtly layered script that presents timeless themes through archetypal characters. During an insightful introduction, Polanski credits co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski with paring down the director's "rambling" script (which was also crafted in part by Jakub Goldberg). Skolimowski, who offers his own comments, notes that he structured the piece like a Greek drama, with a limited number of characters interacting in a single setting over a condensed period of time.

To be sure, the picture is a model of filmmaking economy and a virtual clinic on building a narrative via camera angles and composition. Because of the nature of the shoot, Lipman had to capture many of the scenes with a handheld Arri camera; continuity was also a major headache, given that objects were constantly floating by and that slowly moving cloud formations were the main backdrop to the action. Polanski confesses that he was drawn to this kind of formal challenge when he was fresh out of Poland's State Film School at Lodz: "Form meant a lot to me, and still does, but ... when I was finishing school, [it meant] more even than the story. Now, somehow, story prevails. You know, it comes with age."

Polanski adds that although he had relied upon storyboards while shooting his student films (all of which are included on this package's second platter), he abandoned them on his features. "It's like making a wonderful suit by a terrific tailor and then trying to find a guy who fits that suit," he observes. After coming to this realization on Knife in the Water, the young director tossed his boards into a lake and began working "more intuitively" with his actors.

Ironically, the film almost wasn't made after the script was rejected by Poland's Minister of Culture, whose Communist sensibilities were offended by the story's depiction of a rich, bourgeois couple cavorting in their fancy boat and car. The rejection devastated Polanski, but a year later, he got a call from the country's cinematic potentates, who told him that they might approve the project if he made some "small changes" to the script. Indignant but determined to make his movie, Polanski complied, but he still managed to avoid lapsing into the sort of state-sanctioned propaganda and "social realism" that the authorities preferred. (He also struck back by giving the film a jazzy musical score, which rated as a daring political coup.) As a result of this creative integrity, the film was harshly received by party leaders in Poland, where the prime minister was alleged to have thrown an ashtray at the screen while watching it. Polanski had the last laugh, however, when the picture was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, marking him as a serious filmmaker with international appeal and limitless potential.

As a primer on Polanski's early development, this DVD is an essential addition to any cinephile's library. The second disc of eight shorts is a fascinating document, tracing his development from the most basic student exercises (such as Murder and Teeth Smile) to more ambitious efforts (the sophisticated, Beckett-like surrealism of Two Men and a Wardrobe and The Fat and the Lean).

If the discs have one shortcoming, it's Polanski's own insistence on disabling the rewind and fast-forward functions, which can be frustrating for careful students of cinema.

- Stephen Pizzello

Page 3



© 2003 American Cinematographer.