Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Knife in the Water (1962), by Roman Polanski.
Men, by nature, instinctively compete against each other for the grace and favours of women, pushing the fight to its limits to emphasize and ascertain their masculine attributes.
Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), the first feature film from the Polish-French director that placed him on the map and Poland’s first-ever nomination for the Oscars, brilliantly presents the psychological obsession of male dominance to impress a young and attractive woman.
Roman Polanski’s cinematographic work dabbled with the theme of abstract psychological thrillers, with the bulk of his films reaching cult-like fame, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). The motifs of sexual dominance, romance, spiritualism and inner struggle are central elements of Polanski’s art that he sometimes adapted from his own eventful, private life.
While The Tenant sketched the delusional behavior of Trelkovsky slowly consuming his mind and Rosemary’s Baby focused on the spiritual paranoia of a pregnant woman, Knife in the Water looks at the unconscious psychological warfare opposing two men bent on seducing the same woman.
To highlight the intimacy and human instincts central to this theme, Polanski developed the story with only three characters and placed them on a medium-sized sailboat far from the influence of the outside world in the Masurian Lake district of Poland.
The dance of the peacocks
The story-line of Knife in the Water is simple, and revolves around the conflict which unfolds when a married couple invites a stranger wanderer to join them during their day-long sailboat trip. Immediately after the boarding, the battle for dominance between the husband and the unknown man starts and develops, filling every scene of the film with growing tension.
To emphasize the psychology at work in the alpha male phenomenon, Polanski crafted opposite characters: while the husband is a middle-aged, masculine and wealthy person, skilled in the art of sailing, the stranger is a young, strong and indigent man who knows his way when it comes to hiking and survival tactics.
In the opening scene of Knife in the Water, the director illustrates the couple’s unbalanced relationship further complicated by the arrival of the stranger whose occasionally clumsy movements attract the sympathy and attention of the wife.
The two men constantly trout out their knowledge to impress the ostentatious, flirting and exhibitionist wife, while the hiker’s deadly switchblade knife symbolizes the beginning of intense dominance conflict and fight scenes.
The husband, as an experienced sailor, easily demonstrates his sailing and swimming skills over the young man, while the hiker, given his adventurer lifestyle and personality, smoothly climbs the 12-meter-long wooden mast and effortlessly jumps on the floating logs. The conflicting dance of the peacocks.
Not a romantic soap opera
Shot in the early years of communism, Knife in the Water also presents dictatorial political critiques through the character of the husband, who acts as a tyrant and constantly gives orders to his wife and the stranger. His self-confidence and strength derive from his paranoid obsession that he is the only master in command on the boat, and that everyone must follow his rules.
What allows the movie to stay relevant nearly 60 years after it first came out is its unique and skillful way of portraying the psychological, romantic and dramatic element of the ruthless competition for male dominance, masterfully staying clear of the senseless romantic Hollywood clichés we are so often spoon-fed.
The black and white-shot Knife in the Water is one of the most classic and memorable works by Roman Polanski, where the director operates with slow scenes to gradually build up the tension which climaxes in the most unexpected situations. The filmmaker’s first feature-length film planted the seed of his subsequent cult career and secured his reputation in the industry for decades to come.
By Bence Janek
Bence is a Budapest-born political science M.A graduate, who studied in the United States and Spain. He previously worked for a government relations firm in Washington D.C., and later joined Ernst & Young Budapest. Bence is a freelance writer with expertise in the field of Hungarian and international business sectors, media, films and communication.