Polanski at the crossroads: Knife in the Water

This is the text of my introduction to Roman Polanski’s film Knife in the Water which I gave for Film Club Bristol at Arnolfini on 27 May 2012. You can follow Film Club Bristol on Twitter here.

Roman Polanski’s début feature film Knife In The Water (1962), shot in the summer of 1961 and released in Poland the following year, came at the end of a significant period for the Polish film industry. The great director Andrzej Wajda described his former protégé’s debut feature as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema” and i’d like to go into a little detail about the filmmaking circumstances in order to provide some context. Poland had been occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, and a Communist government had been in operation since 1948. Like other satellite states, it had quickly adopted the centralised Soviet system of film production.

Film was considered a very important propaganda tool, and consequently film-making was financially subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, which also oversaw the establishment of a national film school in the city of Łódź in 1948. Films had to be strictly Party-approved for their ideological content at all stages of production, from the script stage all the way through to post-production, when it was viewed by a panel called a kolaudacja, after which  it was not uncommon for re-shoots to be ordered by the Ministry after a film had been finished if it was not considered ideologically sound. This had a constricting effect on the creativity of filmmakers, whose films were, from the outset, forced to follow dogmatic political lines.

The death of Josef Stalin in 1953 and a subsequent speech made by Nikita Khruschev’s which denounced his ‘cult of personality’ led to the so-called ‘thaw’ in the Soviet Union; the effect of this quickly spread to Poland, leading to the Polish October uprising of 1956 and the rise to power of the reformist politician Władysław Gomułka. This thaw had the effect that Eastern Bloc countries began to decentralise their creative policies and weaken these ideological controls, and also led to the establishment of new modes of film education and production. In 1955 the Creative Film Unit system was introduced, in which a regional production unit, headed by an artistic director, was given greater autonomy over film production, and which allowed greater freedom for filmmakers to express themselves.

From this, emerged a kind-of New Wave referred to as the Polish Film School. Films by directors such as Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda moved Polish cinema away from proscribed Socialist Realism and towards a national cinema dealing with personal issues more relevant to the country’s experience, in particular the still very recent memories of wartime. The thaw continued up until the early 1960s, with films such as Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). However, Polish leader Gomułka was becoming increasingly vocal in his denunciation of where the industry was heading; at a Prague conference in 1957 films of the Polish School were condemned, with calls for an ideological line one again to be towed. With political pressure intensifying, the most influential filmmakers soon found themselves silenced. Andrzej Wajda quickly went abroad where he would make international co-productions; Andrzej Munk died in a car crash in 1961.

Roman Polanski (centre) in Wajda’s Pokolenie (A Generation) (1955)

It was in this climate of thaw and freeze in which Roman Polanski entered the filmmaking stage. He had enrolled at the Łódź national film school in 1954, just as the Polish School was beginning to emerge, and thanks to the new Creative Film Unit system he would rub shoulders with the likes of Wajda and Munk, even appearing as an actor in Wajda’s fim A Generation (1955) . Before graduating in 1959 he would make several short films, including Two Men in a Wardrobe (1958), which would win a prize at the prestigious Brussels Experimental Film Festival. Emboldened by this success, he began writing an outline for his debut feature film with the intention of keeping it minimalistic: three characters, one setting – on a boat in a Mazurian lake – and occurring over the course of three days. The setting is particularly important – Polanski felt that the theatricality of the three person setup was lost when located on a sailboat.

Needing extra input in order to bring a more earthy feel to the dialogue, he recruited a fellow Łódź attendee and future filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski had an enormous input into the finished script, paring the dialogue down to a bare minimum, fleshing out the character of the younger man, but also, inspired by the unities of Greek tragedy, changing the timeframe to the course of 24 hours. His subsequent Polish films deal with tensions between the younger and older generations of Poles, and with drifters disillusioned by contemporary society, and the central conflict in Knife in the Water – between a materialistic, faux cosmopolitan couple who can afford Western luxuries such as a car and a yacht and a poor, hitchhiking student more aligned with primal matters such as hunting and roughing it – makes the film fascinating to examine as much as a product of Skolimowski’s interests.

In spite of this, the film is definitely identifiable as a Roman Polanski film, and it offers many resonances with the films he would make later in his career. Much of the writing about Polanski’s work has focused on the more lurid details about his private life, interpreting his later work in the light of both the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, and later on his conviction for the sexual assault of a minor and subsequent flight from the United States. However, for me the most important details in his autobiography which came to shape his work are from his childhood. He was living in the city of Kraków when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and was forced to subsist in the crammed Jewish Ghetto while his parents were deported to labour camps. Like the author JG Ballard, whose work was informed by his experiences as a child in a Shanghai internment camp, Polanski’s childhood trauma seems throughout his career to have shaped his obsession with power, domination, cruelty and the barbarism which underscores all human interactions.

The first of Knife in the Water‘s Polanskian characteristics is the setting – though the water-borne location might suggest freedom and liberty, for Polanski it represents confinement and aimlessness. His best films – especially the so-called apartment trilogy of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – deal with characters existing in confined personal spaces, in a figurative sense cut off from the outside world, while other films such as Death & the Maiden (1994), Cul-De-Sac (1966) and his more recent film The Ghost Writer (2010) take place on windswept islands more literally cast adrift from the rest of humanity. Water is a key symbol in these latter films, and so too elsewhere: in Pirates (1986) and Bitter Moon (1992) Polanski situates us once again aboard ships, in Chinatown (1974) it is the core of the central mystery plot, and in Rosemary’s Baby, the first of Rosemary’s hallucinatory dreams takes place on a vessel on stormy seas. The other motif in the title – the knife – has both a literal and metaphorical value. Its presence in the film’s title, as well as being an ominous presence throughout the story itself, intimates towards violence, though, as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ironically titled L’Avventura (1960) – the adventure – it is a promise which goes largely unfulfilled in the narrative. The knife also carries with it a rather obvious phallic connotation for this film about male rivalry, and it is also worth noting that Polanski would go on to make an adaptation of Macbeth, in which a knife and water are both important symbols of violence and the quest for purity and absolution.

There is almost always an undercurrent of violence in Polanski’s films, though rather than exploding physically it more often comes in the form of emotional violence; couples in Polanski’s films are seldom happy together, their relationships more often characterised by cruelty, emotional manipulation, possessiveness, frequently sliding into a kind-of sadomasochistic co-dependency and repressed passion. These relationships are then frequently further disturbed by the introduction of a third party, interlopers who bring these problems in to sharper focus. These sexual triangles – most visible in the likes of Cul De Sac, Death & the Maiden and Bitter Moon – then become funny games about domination. In Knife in the Water, Polanski communicates this visually in his narrow, Academy Ratio frame by employing a deep focus, one character in the foreground looming large over the others in the distance. In spite of this, Polanski’s trademark black humour is evident throughout, thanks largely to the jaunty score by his most important collaborator, the musician Krzysztof Komeda. In spite of its virtues, Knife in the Water suffered from the climate of “freeze” which was once again subsuming the Polish film industry. The Ministry of Culture board initially rejected the script of the film for its lack of social commitment, causing Polanski and Skolimowski to go back and add extra dialogue, what they describe as “some bullshit about the younger man living in student accommodation” which, when the script was resubmitted, was enough to get it accepted several years later. At the kolaudacja screening of the film, the reception by party officials was lukewarm – the ending was deemed too ambiguous, a problem which – bizarrely enough – was apparently solved by changing it from two shots of the scene to just one.

The critical reaction was less favourable: “all Polanski has is an international driving licence and no film school diploma”,  ran one review, and the film was released without fanfare with only a limited run. Even Communist leader Gomułka condemned the film publicly as being “not relevant to Polish society.”  Wajda, however, sensed its importance as a way of moving past the old mode of wartime cinema, describing it as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema”. Miraculously the film was eventually picked up by the New York Film Festival, and it became an international hit, making the cover of Time magazine and eventually winning an Academy Award nomination, where it lost out to Fellini’s 8 ½.

The final shot of the film – a stationary car sitting at a crossroads – is an elegant summation of where it had left Polanski and Skolimowski. The latter continued to toil under the censorious Polish system for the remainder of the 60s until the banning of his film Hands Up! led him to go and work abroad, most famously in England with his films Deep End and The Shout. Polanski, however, took the other road; he moved to Paris, began writing Cul De Sac with Gerard Brach, and emerged two years later in Britain with Repulsion. The rest, as they say, is history.

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