Monday, July 6, 2009

Knife in the Water

From the late 1950s, when the first films of Wajda and Munk were exported from Poland, until the late '60s, when the last films of the Czech New Wave were smuggled to the West after they had been banned, filmgoers were fascinated by what was then known as East European Cinema. (1) So many talented filmmakers, like Petrovic and Makavejev in Yugoslavia, Fabri, Jancso and Makk in Hungary, and Menzel and Jires in Czechoslovakia, whose careers were made possible by a thaw in Soviet policies after the death of Stalin, saw those same policies suffer a terrible freeze after Dubcek's fall in 1968 and the crackdown on his "socialism with a human face". It was as if a barred door that had been opened had suddenly been slammed shut again, and the directors who were lucky enough, if you wish to call it luck, to escape, like Forman, Passer, Makavejev and Skolimowski, managed to continue their careers in the West.

Roman Polanski's emigration to the West was due to the success of his very first feature film, in Poland, a cool examination of sexual warfare called Knife in the Water (1962). Never mind that it's still his best film. With a tiny budget and only three actors, Polanski worked a minor miracle. Some of the subtle details of this remarkably subtle film include: Andrzej and Krzystina boarding the boat after they remove their shoes - the hitchhiker simply steps onto the boat without removing his own; Andrzej and Krzystina continually use nautical terms that puzzle the hitchhiker, but emphasize - to him and to us - that he has entered another realm on boarding the ship; the last exchange between Krzystina and the hitchhiker is appropriately impersonal:

She: Ready?
He: Fend off?
She: Yes.
He: Aye, aye. Fend off.

The hitchhiker is allowed one last triumph. When Andrzej leaves his car at the pier on Sunday morning, the hitchhiker asks him, "You leave the windshield wipers?" To which Andrzej replies cocksuredly: "No one will steal them here." When Krzystina returns to the pier on Monday morning, Andrzej tells her morosely "The windshield wipers are gone." Surely, the hitchhiker wouldn't have stolen them, and risk being seen by Andrzej. But one of his like stole them.

I found two references in the film. Polanski and his co-scenarists, Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg probably got the idea for the script from the yacht scenes in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (1960), in which two men - Maurice Ronet, Alain Delon - one an experienced sailor, the other not, compete for the affections of a woman, Marie Laforet. The woman belongs to the owner of the boat, who christened it after her (Marge - the boat in Knife in the Water is called Cristina). There is even a knife with which Delon is skillful.

The other reference is purely visual: the last shot of Knife in the Water, of the married couple's car stopped undecidedly at the wet crossroads, recalls the opening shot from Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (1955), in which, after the credits, an old man cycles down a wet road toward a collision with the illicit couple's car.

Polanski's choice of music, a jazz score composed by his friend Krzysztof Komeda, is superb - a lilting blues motif underpinning the lyrical scenes of the boat on the lake.(2)

Everyone loses on this Sunday outing: the hitchhiker loses his precious knife and is beaten, in more than one sense, by Andrzej; Andrzej loses face with Krzystina by trying too hard to humiliate, and believes he has killed, the hitchhiker; and Krzystina, who cuckolds Andrzej with the hitchhiker and teases him with the truth about his fate, remains stuck with him. The long shot of them sitting in their car, going nowhere on a miserably wet Monday morning, says it all.

(1) One of the curious effects of the Iron Curtain was to transform Central Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia. Hungary) into Eastern Europe.
(2) Komeda was a brilliant film composer whose life and career were abruptly cut short. He worked with Polanski, Wajda, Skolimowski, and most notably with the Swedish director Henning Carlsen. Alas, after following Polanski to Hollywood, he suffered head injuries in a road accident there, and died shortly after in Warsaw.

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