An arthouse Dead Calm?
Tension is a hard thing to come by in movies these days. It seems that the fine art of finding a way to keep an audience on the edge of their seat has disappeared along with the screwball comedy, a decent horror film, or a heartwarming kid's movie. Like the age-old concept of customer service, it seems that the thriller element in many modern psychological or sociological chillers is all but missing. Apparently, most filmmakers feel that as long as the plot is disturbing enough, suspense will be a natural byproduct. Unfortunately, there are other aspects to foreboding and dread, simple basic requirements that, when absent, turn trepidation into tedium. It is clear that a thriller must have characters we relate to and identify with, or in lieu of said, circumstances we can easily place ourselves into. There must also be a precipitating menace: of violence, of revelation, of discovery, or the secretive. But probably the single most important element to a good suspenseful story is cinematic skill. A director must know his camera, must understand its power and its possibilities. He or she needs to be gifted with a kind of compositional precognition, understanding inherently what shots, setups, and sequences will produce fear and foreboding. Some modern movie men like George Romero and Wes Craven have been known to accidentally stumble across it from time to time. But when you look to the true masters of the medium, there is a name that, along with Hitchcock, sets the standard for suspense and tension. Roman Polanski is indeed a master of the thriller, the ability to manipulate the cinema to scare and disturb. Looking back to the beginning of his career and his first feature, Knife in the Water, one can see how a ruler of the genre already had all the necessary weapons in his arsenal.
Facts of the Case
Andrzej and Krystyna are a married couple driving to the marina to spend a Sunday sailing. On their way, a hitchhiking student causes them to veer off the road. Andrzej confronts the lad, who only wants a ride. They give him a lift to the pier and then, surprisingly, invite him onboard. All three then embark for a leisurely sail along a beautiful, isolated lake. During the course of their day, they eat, they discuss life, and they joust a little, at first in a friendly, almost perfunctory manner. But soon a more sinister tone starts to creep in. The youth is carrying a large switchblade, which he loves to produce at odd, random moments.
Unexpectedly, the boat hits the shallows and is stranded in a rainstorm. The threesome escapes to the hold and prepares to bunk down for the night. The next day, after getting the boat seaworthy again, Andrzej torments the young man. He senses a growing infatuation with his wife. He even tosses the boy's beloved knife overboard. After a confrontation, the youth accidentally falls overboard and disappears. Krystyna reacts badly, claiming her husband is a killer. She goes off looking for the boy, but cannot find him. Andrzej takes off to swim to shore. He is going after help, or the police. But the young man may not be dead. And what happens next may change all three of them forever. Or maybe this all will only be a Knife in the Water, a small ripple in an otherwise uneventful day of boating.
There is perhaps no more detail-oriented director than Roman Polanski. All his films, from his initial landmark productions to his later misguided efforts, have concentrated on the minutia and facets of life from which epic circumstances appear to arise. Movies like Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby are not just well acted, brilliantly scripted works of creative cinematic construction, but they are carefully observed sketches of finely intricate scrutiny. Everything is important in a Polanski film; the setting, a character's coat, the view in the window behind an actor, the placement of items on a desk. His moviemaking language, the importance of the camera and framing, the creation of an outside voice to create tension and drama between the individuals onscreen is as important as the words they are saying and the emotions they are expressing. When everything comes together, the technical and the emotional, there is no better filmmaker. When one is missing, however, or if both are weak, then there is no more artificial movie mind. Polanski is a student of film as a mechanical craft. He is also an artisan, a handmade creator of complex scenarios and interweaving undercurrents. Sometimes his style can substantially outweigh his substance, but he is usually able to balance both to create something magical out of a sort of cinematic geometry.
Polanski's first full-length feature film, Knife in the Water, is a technical marvel, a masterpiece of composition and perfected camera work. It is filled with startling, glorious black and white imagery, obvious symbolism, and shots of staggering complexity and construction. At its core, it is a three person psychological drama that takes place over a period of 24 hours on a small sailboat adrift in a lake, a simple, subtle struggle between classes and emotions. Yet through its sweeping vistas and rampant artistic touches, it is also a movie of greater scope and universal platitudes. One can look at Knife and see the start of a thousand future film projects: movies that capture interpersonal and sexual tension between lovers and strangers, spouses, and students. One can also feel the foundation for Polanski's entire career, a series of movies that deal with untold secrets, unspoken pain, and unexpected connections. No one is who he or she seems to be in Knife in the Water. The husband is not a brave, successful man; the wife is not a happy, contented partner; and the enigmatic, blond-haired hitchhiker is not the switchblade wielding threat he portrays. They are more than their outer face…but they are also less. Actually, the question becomes who exactly are these people and what do they really stand for? Unfortunately, Knife has little desire to address this quandary.
This is a major misstep in this film. The obvious ambiguousness to almost every event that happens on screen and the characters creating the scenarios renders Knife in the Water cold and calculating when it should be hot with untold tension. This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. We are not witnessing a true battle of wills or a deeply disturbed set of secretly acted-out agendas. Indeed, the characterization and dramatics play out like the languid day on a calm blue waterway. Issues are allowed to drift and stagnate, motives become ill defined and lazy, and the entire story sags beneath underdeveloped plot sails. Part of the problem here is that we really don't have anyone to identify with. The husband and wife appear content, yet there is a thread of hatred between them that only flares up once. When it does, the movie crackles and burns. Finally, we are seeing something of the subconscious. But it's one of the few times where we experience such insight or shock. The rest of the movie is just too vague, too sub-textual to spell out—or in some cases even hint at—the issues irritating the characters. A great deal of the dynamic between the players here has to be inferred, created in the mind of the viewer from half-heard lines of dialogue, a stolen glance or two, and most unfortunately, from a backlog of similarly structured post-Polanski storylines. If Knife in the Water is indeed a creepy, suspenseful love/hate/horror triangle between disaffected marrieds and an ingenious, insane interloper, the reason for its success as such is purely cinematic craft. Just like any summarization, we keep waiting for the real meat of the story to step forward and be recognized.
Maybe it's better to view Knife in the Water as not about a marriage on the brink or a young man trying to unseat a dominant male. This is Communist Poland, after all, and no amount of Western allusion can dilute the fact that we are dealing with a strict class structure and sense of social composition. The youth (as this is how he is referred to in the credits) is supposed to be a scared, wild-eyed dreamer, the kind of impressionable mind the Party recruits and debases for the sake of the common good. Krystyna is supposed to be subservient and dissatisfied with life: wives behind the Iron Curtain don't have the liberation of America or Europe and marry more out of convenience than love or sex. And the older businessman (or bureaucrat or ranking government official) is indeed the boss, the controlling and commanding dispassionate pawn to dogma that makes the political machine ebb and flow. So there's not much more of a dynamic that can be created or challenged. These people are doomed to fulfill their State-sponsored roles. In interviews, Polanski's desire to strip the dialogue back, to only present small, selected portions of these people's thoughts and personas is irreparable to Knife in the Water. Perhaps he felt his camera would fill in the blanks, but in reality, that attitude backfires and it becomes increasingly impossible to understand the individual's motivation or if they even have any. Tension and suspense only work when we feel something is at stake, when something we care for or understand is threatened or about to be. In Knife in the Water, the characters never truly come alive for us. So, in turn, we never really care what happens.
Yet the visual scope and sense of artistic structure mostly makes up for the lack of a fully realized internal element. Indeed, you can watch this film, never once worrying about the people or the plot and simply sit back and enjoy a cinematic impressionist at work. Polanski piles on the unique angles (only Kubrick indulged in more lens and placement machinations) and faultless compositions, making the superficial facets of his film simply exquisite. He uses everything at his disposal to maintain a moody, atmospheric tone. Costumes and setting, blocking and in-frame tableaus, even a fantastically multi-faceted jazz score all combine to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It is easy to see why this is a much praised motion picture. It is probably as close to visual perfection as you will witness, the ultimate blending of the monochrome medium to light and shadow, image and presentation. Yet one can't help but be bothered by the vagueness, the sheer lack of specificity that runs throughout the story being told. Like the irritating bearer of information that keeps hinting over and over as to what the secret or the story really is (and eventually fails to divulge everything completely), Knife in the Water's all too well hidden agendas eventually grow tiresome. You want someone to rage. You want someone to lust. All this polite positioning is just not dramatic.
But perhaps Knife in the Water is not supposed to represent anything more than these hidden desires and sequestered sentiments of people under the rule of a totalitarian thumb. Setting is as important to Polanski as anything else, and Poland circa 1960 was not a wellspring of openness and experimentation. This trip on the lake is a chance to escape the complex prerequisites of a society under Soviet domination. It is these people's brief chance to shed the images impressed upon them by the Marxist ideals. These are citizens without power, with only their place within the class configuration to preserve their identity. How they interact on the boat is perhaps how they would do so within any other social setting or Party meeting. This is not a time for in-depth personal revelation, nor is there a communal climate for such. At most, it's a chance to test the waters, so to speak, to barely open the door to the psyche and discover the undercurrents of discontent running through each of them. Or maybe this is all just an excuse for Polanski to create a love letter to his favorite pastime of that moment: sailing. Indeed, a boat is merely a knife in the water, cutting a swath along the glass-like stillness of the surface, revealing a small wake of what's underneath before quickly closing back up. Just like the nick of a blade to the skin. Just like our trio of isolated souls. While far from perfect on the interpersonal level, Polanski's first feature heralds an artist in full effect.
This is also evident from his work in short films. As part of this DVD package, Criterion collects eight of Polanski's mini movies. They span the period of 1957-62 and cover all genres, from drama to absurdist comedy. Each movie looks fantastic with only minimal defects. The only real visual issues come with the final short, Mammals. It has a fuzzy, faded look that may have been intentional, or may be the result of age or production problems (after all, it must be difficult to film in the bleak whiteness of snow). Each one of these movies is a masterwork of form, style, and simple near-silent storytelling, even when the plots seem obtuse or illogical. Murder is a brief snippet of crime in controlled shots. Teeth Smile tells a voyeur's tale from a wonderful, beautifully framed mise-en-scène. Break Up the Dance is the first experiment in more long form narrative. Here, Polanski tries to challenge tone and show a happy set-up (a swanky, invite only party) followed by an anarchic ending (a gang of thugs literally break things up). Lamp is the notion of progress competing with old world ways. A new electrical system destroys a dollmaker's shop, and the magic inside, when it replaces the reliable oil lamp therein. The aforementioned Mammals is really an allegory for the battle between man and his nature for evolutionary and social superiority. Basically boiled down to a snowbound tale of one rube forced to pull another along on a sleigh, it's a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to play master and who gets to be subservient.
The three longest shorts, however, are also the best. Two Men and a Wardrobe tells the tender tale of a couple of jolly furniture movers who suddenly appear from out of the ocean, oversized cupboard in hand. As they move around a cityscape devolving into crime and brutality, the good-natured duo are put upon and ridiculed, refused service in restaurants, and beaten by thugs. The dichotomy between people who are different and the stubborn prejudice of the community strikes chords of instant recognition. What is not so readily apparent is the quiet gentility in the story and the painful pathos of watching the innocent be oppressed. Equally stirring is The Fat and the Lean, a strange tale of ritualistic patterns that reveals how the ties than bind are more damaging than the ability to break free. As a sad servant tries his best to entertain and care for his obese, dictatorial master, he longs for freedom and a life in the big city, away from service and supplication. It is funny, sad, and stupid all in one big bravura cinematic performance. But probably the best piece of moviemaking in the whole DVD package is When Angels Fall, the brutally devastating story of an old woman forced to live out her last days with haunting memories of her past as she monitors a men's bathroom. Surrounded by bums and hustlers, urinals dripping with running water, we see a face devastated by time and fate thinking back and recalling: remembering her youth, remembering young love, remembering family, and always, remembering loss in wartime. Shifting from the black and white realities of the toilet to the faded colors of memory, it shows that Polanski, even as a graduating student from school, was a genius of visual arts.
From a DVD standpoint, this package from Criterion maintains their high standards of excellence. When you see how amazing the black and white transfers are, when you hear the vibrant lounge lizard bebop barreling through the speakers, you will quickly understand the care and craftsmanship that went into creating this digital presentation. Knife in the Water looks amazing. It is crisp, clear, and almost immaculately clean. The opening shot of the couple driving down the road, barely visible reflection of the passing tree line moving across the windshield, is pure poetry in movie motion, rendered even more spectacular by the transfer. Perhaps even more impressive is the soundtrack. Older films occasionally have bad available sound elements that distract from the overall effectiveness of the production, but the aural action here is exceptional. The jazz score and voice work are up front and expertly balanced. There is no hiss and very little distortion. If there is one downside to the disc, it's Polanski's personal translation of the subtitles. This is already a movie with very little to say, script wise. Polanski's pattern is to offer even less of the dialogue in the subtitles. Like that old joke about Japanese dubbing, characters speak several lines, seem to say many things, and yet we are left viewing a single line of dialogue that, no matter how complex the language, can't possibly be incorporating everything that was said. Jean Luc Godard has been known to keep his translations to a minimum (his recent In Praise of Love probably only subtitles 60% of what is said), but for a movie so simple to begin with, further simplification only causes frustration.
Along with the bonus disc of short films, there are a couple of other extras worth noting. There is an interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski that adds a great deal of insight as to how this film was made, the casting, and creative struggles they had with the Government film board and the critics in their homeland. It is nice to see Polanski and hear him talk about his movie: his exile from America (and there will be no discussion here on how valid or invalid it is) has deprived film fans the chance at hearing this talented man speak for himself. He seems relaxed and genuinely pleased about discussing Knife in the Water and the 20-plus minute featurette is almost as good as a commentary, revealing how certain shots were captured and many personal/professional anecdotes. There is also an enclosed essay that offers its own interpretation of the film and its importance to world cinema. It's hard to imagine that Polanski and the works of Poland and Eastern Europe were virtually unknown prior to Knife in the Water's Oscar nomination (it lost to 8 1/2). Polanski's contribution to cinema from 1960 to 1980 has been that strong and impactful. While far from perfect, Knife in the Water is still a must-see lesson in movies as visual magic and evocative imagery. The story may be uncertain, but the way it is told is definitely not.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps time has not been kind to Knife in the Water. Like any work of art, its visual flair remains ageless. But the subtle story, which at one time may have seemed groundbreaking and confrontational (especially in Communist Poland), is now rather weak and waterlogged. Nothing really happens between the trio onboard the tiny boat. There is a great deal of unspoken hinting and obtuse suggesting. But when you get right down to it, we really don't care what happens. Andrzej and Krystyna are rather hateful: hallow people caught in a loveless marriage that frankly suits them both. The young man is part wimp, part provocateur, but can't seem to rise above the level of whining brat to instill a desire in us to see him win or succeed. The boat location indeed isolates them from the socialist society they are all cogs in, but there is no sudden freedom, no joyful liberation and expression of secret obsessions. All we get is 94 minutes of absolutely breathtaking camera and compositional genius grafted onto an inert, mostly inferred storyline.
Polanski can be forgiven for many things in his dense, complex career behind the camera. He has taken risks and made mistakes that few directors even get the chance to attempt. But his first film definitely suffers from all pizzazz and no passion. Knife in the Water may have introduced the world to the wonders of Eastern bloc cinema, but its story adds very little to modern moviemaking. It stands as an element of its era and as masterful as it is, it really doesn't echo in 2003.
Lost among the crimes and convictions, accusations and moral posturing is the fact that, at his best, there was (and is) no finer cinematic artist than Roman Polanski. Certainly there were directors who understood the actor better, even though his films are filled with brilliant performances. And it is also a given that there were filmmakers who could bring a more organic feel to their work. Yet few have had the immediate and long lasting impact on movies that he has. Indeed, one of the signs of a visionary in isolation is the desire by his public to see a return to form, a hope that the maverick can put aside the hype and the infamy that has surrounded their life and reconnect with their filmmaking roots. As Polanski's storytelling decisions have become more irregular (The Ninth Gate, the just announced Oliver Twist) or inspired (his brave look back at occupied Poland in the Oscar winning The Pianist), he seems to always return to the textures and themes of tension. Polanski is one of its few masters, and to look back at his beginnings with Knife in the Water clearly shows why. He knows how to make a movie mood that is intense and foreboding without ever once overwhelming his audience. Like a well-constructed building, Polanski's films stand the test of time because they contain solid foundations in the craft of movie making. While it may not sizzle with erotic suspense or shock you out of your seat, Knife in the Water is still a beautifully inscrutable story of psychosocial anxiety and a brilliant work of the film as art.
Knife in the Water is found not guilty, with only slight reservations about its ambiguous storytelling and characterization from the Court. Roman Polanski is indeed found not guilty for his formidable style behind the camera. Criterion is commended for including the short film collection on this disc. It makes a must see movie turn into a must own collection of film.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview with Director Roman Polanski and Co-Screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski
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