Showing as part of the Roman Polanski season at the Barbican, the Polish director’s first feature is a landmark of sixties cinema, an outstanding debut that more than holds its own among the New Wave masterpieces of the time. Already evident there are the unnerving sense of menace and the scalpel-sharp psychological dissections that he would later develop in such masterpieces as Repulsion and Chinatown – which are also included in the programme.
Knife in the Water is a minimalist classic, a tight, bare, existential thriller low on budget but high on imagination. Andrzej and Krystyna, a well-off couple, are on their way to a lake for a boat trip when they almost run over a hitch-hiker. They give him a lift and invite him to join them on their excursion. Once on the boat in the middle of the vast lake, Andrzej begins to play a perverse power game with the young drifter. Tensions simmer as he orders the young man about, daring him to take risks, and the feeling of danger becomes more palpable when the young man reveals he carries a large knife. As the two men clash over and over again, the escalation of macho bravado leads to an increasingly volatile situation.
Polanski’s brilliant direction infuses exceptional depth and intensity into the simple set-up. The claustrophobic shots that enclose the three characters convey a sense of menace and doom that is emphasised by the stark black and white images and the moody jazz score. The film offers no hope: although the two men seem to be opposed in age and social standing, they are essentially the same, as a disillusioned Krystyna points out. From Polanski’s dark view of mankind emerges an impressively subtle psychological study that concludes with marvellous ambiguity. A lean and mean, misanthropic gem.
Also showing as part of the Roman Polanski season: Repulsion (May 12), Cul-De-Sac (May 19), Chinatown (May 26), The Pianist (June 2).