Apocalypse Prochnow

A new video essay on John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, made for our 20th Century Flicks screening of In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

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The Strange Case of Walerian Borowczyk

Walerian Borowczyk in Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967)
Walerian Borowczyk in Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967)

If one is to believe the received wisdom about the career of director Walerian Borowczyk, then it might seem fitting that he would have sought to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After all, the typical critical narrative – that of a once-great animator and filmmaker who transformed himself into a purveyor of high-class sleaze, his early talent quickly disintegrating in favour of prurience and depravity – might suggest something of the Jekyll and Hyde about the man himself.

If one plots linearly from his early, award-winning animated films of the 1950s and ’60s through to softcore Euro-sleaze like Emmanuelle 5 (1986), the juxtaposition of these two sides of the Borowczykian coin might indeed seem difficult to reconcile as emerging from the same artistic vision. How did, say, the mischievous, imaginative whimsy of Les astronautes (1959) bear any relation to the wildly-ejaculating monster of La Bête (1975), or the sight in Contes immoraux (1974) of a naked young woman experiencing her first pangs of sexual pleasure from both religious paraphernalia and a cucumber?

On closer inspection Borowczyk’s transition from découpage to décolletage was, as one might expect, not as clear-cut as this, and there certainly bears in his early work distinct traces of what was to come. Take, for example, his début feature, the animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967) and Madame Kabal’s disproportionately enlarged bosom, or her husband’s repeated peering through binoculars to cuts to live-action shots of a lecherous old man waylaying a succession of nubile women in varying degrees of undress. Even the relatively stately, chaste world of Blanche (1972) is one whose atmosphere is permeated with lecherousness and lust-driven violence.

Blanche (1972)
Ligia Branice in Blanche (1972)

It is worth noting that publicity materials for Boro’s debut live-action film Goto, Island of Love (1968) elected to place emphasis on the film’s brief nude bathing scene as a means of selling it to audiences, since his shift towards exploitation was in no small part down to the influence of others, as well as contextually part of wider shifts in the film industry in his adoptive homeland of France. A relaxation in censorship laws in the early 1970s, accelerated by the election in 1974 of President Giscard, had led to an explosion in the distribution, exhibition and dissemination of pornographic material in the country, the adult market eventually accounting for more than 10% of all box office takings nationwide.

Neither Borowczyk’s short films nor his features had been financially profitable, and it had been at the behest of producer Anatole Dauman, who in the 1960s had bankrolled the august likes of Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard, that it was suggested to Borowczyk that he move into this newly lucrative market. From this emerged Contes immoraux, a portmanteau of erotically charged short films on the theme of sexual transgression which, though largely maligned by contemporary critics, found Boro his hitherto elusive favour at the box office. Jekyll had sipped the transformative serum, from which there would be no turning back.

While Borowczyk might more commonly be pegged alongside outré contemporaries such as Jesus Franco or Jean Rollin (the latter bears more of a comparison), it is instructive to consider him in the light of several other filmmakers of the period. By the time of Contes immoraux, Alain Robbe-Grillet had already carved his niche for Sadean provocations, Pier Paolo Pasolini was two films into his lascivious Trilogy of Life, Dušan Makavejev was adding sex and scatology to his trademark formal experimentalism with W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), and both Miklós Jancsó and Ōshima Nagisa were close to moving into graphic eroticism in Private Vices, Public Pleasures (1976) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976) respectively.

Marina Pierro in Interno di un convento (1978)
Marina Pierro in Interno di un convento (1978)

In this context, Borowczyk’s work in the 1970s might then seem less the product of an over-active libidinous imagination than reflective of a wider current in what one might loosely term ‘art cinema’. One might also note that much of the reputation of his work in this period owes its reputation to tactical rebranding as much as the content itself: La Marge (1976), for instance, found itself rechristened Emmanuelle ’77 on account of its star Sylvia Kristal, while Les héroïnes du mal (1979) was renamed Three Immoral Women to capitalise on the notoriety of Boro’s earlier film. Interno di un convento (1978), meanwhile, might be chided as ‘Nunsploitation‘, but it is as much part of the tradition of Black Narcissus (1947) or The Devils (1971) as much as outright exploitation as Jesús Franco’s Les Demons (1972) or Suzuki Norifumi’s School of the Holy Beast (1974).

Borowczyk’s post-La Bête work in the ’70s stemmed almost exclusively from literary sources (de Maupassant, Stendahl, Zeromski) rather than original scenarios, and following Lulu (1980) – his voluptuous take on Frank Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora – he turned his attention to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella remains one of the most frequently-adapted works in cinema, its longevity attested to by the diversity of its transpositions, proving a platform for everything from straight horror, to comedy (Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)) and outright pornography (The Adult Version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1972)).

Questions of fidelity to the original source are something of a moot point given that the Jekyll and Hyde of the popular imagination is more influenced by renditions of the novella than the work itself. Nevertheless, Borowczyk’s version is faithful to Stevenson in certain respects: the pronunciation ‘jee-kill’ is a corrective to decades of its more common intonation, while elsewhere, the use of two separate actors to perform the lead dual role (the elegant Udo Kier and rather more squalid Gérard Zalcberg respectively) is in keeping with the author’s oft-ignored delineation of them as being physically distinct from each other.

Udo Kier in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Udo Kier in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

The film’s title, however, tells us that this is something different to what we’ve already seen. Though released in France as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981), Boro’s preferred The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (the character of Fanny Osbourne sharing the name of Stevenson’s wife) better elucidates its equal weighting to its protagonists. Indeed, when we finally witness Henry’s process of transformation in full, it is through the eyes of his onlooking fiancée, illustrating the film’s dual (or, at times, triple) spectatorial alignment.

The presence of women in any shape or form in screen adaptations of the novella is, in itself, a fabrication, since the world of the book is an exclusively male one. The lineage traces back to Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation which introduced the saintly figure of Agnes Carew, Jekyll’s girlfriend, while the Jack the Ripper murders in London in the following year also contributed to the introduction of a tart-with-a-heart character, most vividly portrayed by Miriam Hopkins in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 screen adaptation. Both archetypes traditionally serve a merely symbolic function, but the presence Borowczyk’s Fanny Osbourne provides the story with a feminine emancipatory narrative trajectory, perhaps rendering it closer in spirit to Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971).

Marina Pierro in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Marina Pierro in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

Structurally, the film’s first act shares certain similarities with La Bête: an engagement prompts society’s supposed great and good to gather together in a stately mansion, whereupon intrigues are set in motion, and character tensions are revealed. Once the horror kicks in, there is an increasing resemblance to the contemporary home invasion slasher movie, with guests being picked off one-by-one by an unseen assailant (whose method of suspending his victims’ bodies slyly recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)), yet the sexual charge of the assaults, coupled with the evidently socially satirical subtext, also prompt comparisons with Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

As with Pasolini, Borowczyk’s aim is squarely at the complacency, hypocrisies and barely-repressed desires of bourgeois society, each of the assembled guests representing sacred cows to be shot down: per Stevenson, there is the arch rationalist Dr. Lanyon, but also the trigger-happy General (whose use of the phrase ‘dark continent’ evidently aligns him with manichean Victorian colonialist attitudes). The figure of Reverend Donald Regan reflects the long-running strain of anti-clericism in Boro’s work, placing him not only in the tradition of Buñuel but, as the opening epigram of La Bête made clear, Voltaire too.

Patrick Magee in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Patrick Magee in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

The period setting of the story provides another opportunity for Borowczyk to revel in his famously decorous approach to mise-en-scène; his films are notable for their equal weighting of naked bodies and inanimate objects, the latter of which in his earlier stop-motion animation work were invested with both a symbolic significance and a kind of inner life of their own. In Jekyll, it is ornate Victoriana which catches the camera’s eye, such as the antique sewing machine upon which the General’s daughter rests while offering herself to Hyde, and Jekyll’s phonograph machine, a visual reference to Boro’s own Le phonographe (1969) as well as providing a link to Thomas Edison and, hence, the birth of cinema itself.

The presence of visual art in his films come loaded with meaning too, yet while the use of symbolist painter Władysław Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations in La Bête comes as a portent of the zoophiliac activities which will follow, in Jekyll the use of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter of comes as a thematic counterpoint: described as “the apotheosis of all humanity” by Reverend Regan, its illustration of a socially constructed feminine ideal of spousal loyalty loads its symbolic destruction come the film’s climax with iconoclastic weight.

Jekyll Osboune

Vermeer is one reference point in the film’s look (pointedly the scene in which Hyde mischievously signs the house’s guestbook), but overall its visual strategy is distinctly its own: cinematographer Noël Véry’s deployment of diffused lighting creates a ethereal atmosphere, finding an equivalent to the fog of Stevenson’s novella in what is a mostly interior-bound setting. If Borowczyk’s earlier films were characterised by their visual flatness and relatively static framing, then the expressionistic low and high angles deployed in Jekyll, combined with use of discontinuous montage and more labyrinthine compositions all combine to abet a sense of dizzying disorientation.

Borowczyk had been a filmmaker championed by several prominent surrealists, most notably André Breton’s celebration of his “imagination fulgurante”, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne serves as an ample illustration that, far from having become a mere smut-peddler, his later work retains the visual splendour and anarchic mischief which had seen him placed in this tradition earlier in his career. Just as Jekyll chides Lanyon for his narrow-minded materialism, the film comes as an artistic rebuff of the quotidian in favour of the fantastique, and if Boro had become, at this late stage in his career, more Hyde than Jekyll, then the former’s rebuff to Lanyon in a moment of lucidity perhaps serves both as a mea culpa and the voice of the filmmaker turning the mirror towards his audience: “I have committed crimes, true, but you commit worse atrocities in your dreams.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne screens as part of Scalarama 2015 at Bristol’s Cube Cinema on 17 September. Details:

http://www.cubecinema.com/programme/event/the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-ms-osbourne,8080/

Gérard Zalcberg in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1980)
Gérard Zalcberg in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Essay Essay Essay

As you may or may not know, I have for the best part of four years been introducing films at The Cube cinema for one of their repertory slots called 20th Century Cube, a monthly night programmed in conjunction with Bristol’s legendary (yes) 20th Century Flicks video shop. Last May, as I was unable to make it to that month’s screening in person, we decided to embrace the miracle that is modern technology and compile a short narrated video introduction instead, thereby entering us into the burgeoning and somewhat uncharted creative sphere of video essay making. The experiment seemed to be a success – the visual aspect unsurprisingly proving a more enriching experience than that of that guy again standing up and delivering a monologue – and since then I have been assembling videos for almost all of our screenings.

By way of an apology for not having posted on here for a while then, I offer the fruits of my recent labours as some form of recompense, nearly all of which are now collected over at my YouTube channel. The early ones, predictably enough, are a bit rough and ready, but my more recent ones are getting a little more sophisticated as I find myself increasingly comfortable in navigating my way around the editing software. Anyway, here’s the ones which i’m most happy with: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill (1967). More to follow, as and when they arrive…

Haunted Mirrors: The Dark Side of Robert Hamer

As part of its Ealing: Light and Dark season, which runs from 22 October to 30 December at the NFT, the BFI today re-releases its oft-overlooked kitchen sink noir It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), providing a timely opportunity to reassess the career of its director Robert Hamer, a man whose faltering career David Thomson described as “the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema”. Hamer’s decline is perhaps one all-too familiar in the annals of British film history, a career beginning with much promise, yet ultimately marked by artistic compromise, isolation and self-destruction, with the result that there can seem a capricious, contradictory nature to his small body of work, one which began in supernatural horror (Dead of Night (1945)) and ended with light farce (School for Scoundrels (1960)).

Yet look beyond the superficial differences between his films and there can be found common threads. As Charles Barr notes, in Hamer’s films “you find a gallery of individuals, across the range of classes, whose sexual and emotional drives and strongly repressed and as strongly burst out, only to be damped down in an adjustment to the prevailing Ealing/British dispensation which […] accepts restraint on sex drive and ambition and class resentment”. What is fascinating about Hamer’s output is how, amidst diverse social and historical contexts, repeating themes and motifs come together to form a consistent vision of the British condition. “I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other”, ran Hamer’s oft quoted ethos, and arguably no other British filmmaker has presented in so few films such a comprehensively pessimistic, dark vision of society and its mores.

As as Robert Murphy’s mini-biography of the director at Screenonline states, one important piece of recurring imagery in Hamer’s films is that of the mirror, and that is the one I wish to focus upon here. A useful starting point is the aforementioned It Always Rains on Sunday, as it provides a fulcrum around which several other films can be balanced, not least because it features two actors, Googie Withers and her husband John McCallum, whose films with Hamer both come in his most artistically fertile period (1945-1952) and display the use of the recurring visual motif to its fullest. In the film Withers plays Rose Sandigate, a former East End barmaid now married to a dull middle-aged man (played by Edward Chapman), who learns that her violent former lover Tommy Swann (McCallum) has escaped from prison and is now on the run. In a virtuoso sequence, a dissolve takes us from her combing her hair in the mirror in her drab, domesticated present to a flashback to her first meeting with Swann, glimpsing him in the mirror behind the bar in which she used to work.

Edward Chapman and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Here, the function of the mirror is as a kind-of portal to an idealized, romanticized past, and an escape from Rose’s drab, repressed life. In some ways it also feels like a reference to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a woman condemned to domestication, only able to view life’s “shadows of the world” through the lens of a looking glass. In rendering quasi-physically the difference between the lustrous mirror world of the past and the everyday routines of the present, Hamer finds an elegant visual expression of fantasy and repressed sensuality, and as the narrative unfolds and Tommy’s very real presence returns to Rose’s life, the diametrical planes between these mirrored worlds of reality and fantasy begun to blur together with predictably catastrophic consequences.

Withers made two other films with Robert Hamer at Ealing, most significantly the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment of their famous portmanteau horror Dead of Night, released some two years before Sunday. Once again, the theme is repression, a mirror acting as a conduit between an exotic fantasy world and mundane reality: Withers plays Joan, about to be married to her fiancee Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), and who one day buys for him as a present an antique mirror. Note in the still below that when we initially see the mirror, the ‘real’ couple in the foreground are out of focus, instead inviting us to view the pair separated by the triptych frame in the reflection.

Ralph Michael and Googie Withers in Dead of Night (1945)

At this early stage in the narrative, the mirror has no other function than to illustrate visually the suggestion of possible emotional distance between the two characters, something which will be developed further when the mirror’s supernatural properties manifest themselves and Peter finds himself unable to see his fiancee’s reflection at all, as well as crystallizing his paranoia about his bride-to-be and her relationship with her ‘friend’  with whom he suspects she is having an affair. Yet as the story progresses, the mirror motif comes to take on a second main function, namely that of underscoring an overall sense of  the couple’s bourgeois complacency. Although we are in a different, more affluent social milieu to that of the couple in It Always Rains on Sunday, the mise en scene of the segment is again one of drab domesticity. The houses in which they live are shown to be cold, sterile, ordered places of social propriety, while the visions which Peter has in the mirror are in direct opposition, exuding warmth and a seductive exoticism.

Ralph Michael in Dead of Night (1945)

Here, as with It Always Rains on Sunday, is the mirror’s trap: the promise of an exotic fantasy world as an escape from the dissatisfaction of drab domesticity, but one which ultimately leads to destruction. So too is there a temporal element – just as Sunday‘s mirror allowed its protagonist to hark back to the past, Peter’s fantastic vision of a Georgian bedchamber, while not of his own past and thus not strictly a flashback, is one rooted in times gone by, with the accompanying suggestion that the idealized values, mores and hierarchy of a past time are what he, and perhaps many other socially conservative backwards-looking Britons, wish their lives and their country could return to.

Hamer’s other film with Googie Withers, the Victorian-era melodrama Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), makes much less use of the mirror motif, though there are occasional glimpses: in one scene David Sutton (Gordon Jackson), in a slight echo of the Dead of Night still above, fusses over his appearance and is chastised by his sister Victoria (Jean Ireland), who states, “I can’t think what’s come over you lately David. You do nothing but fiddle with your necktie and look at yourself in mirrors“.

Gordon Jackson in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

It is, for the most part, a throwaway scene though gains greater weight when considered in the light of Hamer’s preoccupations: David is the son of repressive patriarch Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns), the local chemist whose life centres on very Victorian notions of order and discipline (elegantly underlined by the film’s title, a reference to the overly fussy way he ties up his customers’ parcels). David’s increasing attention to his sartorial presentation is seen as an attempt to break free from these moral strictures and become a ‘man about town’, but one which is repeatedly crushed by his father tyranny which leads him, in an act of defiance, to frequent the raucously wanton confines of the local pub, in effect functioning as the film’s exotic otherworldly mirror plane. There, he meets the landlord’s wife Pearl (Googie Withers again) and becomes embroiled in a murder plot: once again, the mirror’s alluring promises leads to destruction. As a sidenote, Withers at one stage is caught in the reflection in a mirror, just before the film’s dramatic peak here:

Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

Another example of Hamer’s striking use of mirrors occurs in The Long Memory (1952); though ostensibly centred on John Mills’ character Phillip Davidson and his quest to hunt down the people who lied at his trial and caused him to have to spend 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the real interest is in the sub-plot between his former lover Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars) and her relationship with her policeman husband Bob Lowther (once again, John McCallum). As Davidson closes in, Bob becomes increasingly cognizant of the possibility that his wife perjured herself all those years ago and that she has been hiding the truth from him ever since. As with It Always Rains on Sunday, a criminal past comes back to shatter domestic equilibrium (significantly with McCallum on the right side of the law in this case), and truth and fantasy collide with inevitable catastrophe. Hamer again frames the couple in a mirror’s reflection, visually forcing together two characters who are actually physically, and emotionally, far apart:

Elizabeth Sellars and John McCallum in The Long Memory (1952)

Mirrors then, for Hamer, are used as a device to illustrate divisions, disconnections between characters whose emotions are separated into the realm of fantasy, whether as a result of domestic repression or self-deceit, but regardless have already set them irrevocably on the road towards self-destruction. In 1949 Hamer made a film called The Spider and the Fly, which takes its name from the 1829 poem by Mary Howitt, a cautionary tale which warns of the alluring deceptiveness of surface appearances and the allure of the exotic unknown. For Hewitt, like Hamer, the mirrored reflection is the most untrustworthy of images, within which may find us deceiving ourselves the most.

“Sweet creature!” said the Spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise,

How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!

I’ve a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,

If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”

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.