Filmed in black-and-white, set almost entirely on a small sailboat, and with a cast of only three characters, there’s something warm and analog about Roman Polanski’s debut film Nóż W Wodzie (Knife In The Water) . Like slipping a needle on a vinyl groove, the film cracks and pops and skips until the first sensation hits you, and the viewer is awash with a deep, encompassing midrange of powerful intimacy. It ends slithering back onto itself, almost exactly where it started, only entirely transformed by the artistry that brought it full circle.
The film is a thrilling, mesmerizing, and masterful debut from Polanski, whose later criminal exploits would, rather understandably, overshadow the breadth and quality of his films. Leon Niemczyk and the ridiculously attractive Jolanta Umecka star as married couple Andrzej and Krystyna; the film opens with them claustrophobically perched inside a tiny Peugot, on their way to a sailing trip on a local lake. They seem affluent, slightly bored, perhaps unhappy. Krystyna is driving, and Andrzej criticizes her technique and insists on taking over the wheel. She acquiesces, silently without protest. Soon afterward he almost hits a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) in the middle of the road. Andrzej screams at the hitchhiker for standing in traffic, then screams at his wife, insisting that if she were driving, the hitchhiker would already be dead, and then supposes that she would probably want to give the young stranger a lift.
The tenor is set. Psychosexual dynamics, the illusion/assumption of control, youth versus maturity, generational resentment…all in the opening five minutes. Throughout these initial proceedings, Krystyna is clad from head to toe, bespectacled, hair pinned up, in complete House Frau mode. Until they reach the dock and board the sailboat — a trip on which Andrzej coaxes the young hitchhiker to join them — she is overtly desexualized, demure and submissive. As make their way onto the lake, powered only by wind, sail, and paddle, she emerges in a skin-baring bathing suit as an idealized sexual goddess. Long hair flowing, dark skin, curves as far as the eye can see, she is a stunning object of beauty and desire, yet she knows her way around operating a sailboat just as well as her husband. The boat itself is named ‘Christine’, emblematic of her transformation as it takes on a Western derivation of her given name.
Andrzej himself is now parading himself barechested, the image of the virile alpha-male, more than ready to assert himself over the young, handsome stranger, who himself is utterly clueless on the art of sailing. Andrzej is older, a successful writer with a beautiful wife, yet his smug air superiority over this younger counterpart betrays his own insecurities about his relationship with his wife, as well as the equal parts contempt for and envy of the younger, free-spirited, handsome hitchhiker. Thus ignites a slow-burn battle of the will between the two men, while Krystyna waits and observes. The young hitchhiker is all parts angst and devil-may-care bravado; his irresponsible youth repulses her as much as Andrzej’s boorish domineering. Andrzej taunts the young man for his lack of sailing skills and refined knowledge. The handsome youth in turn whips out his prized pocketknife and casually shows off by engaging in rounds of stabscotch on the deck of the boat. The battles continue and the emotional stakes continue to rise.
The title refers to a pivotal moment in the film where a final gauntlet is thrown, and all three characters are forced to observe exactly what their roles are in this passion play. Events comes to a head in a way that slyly avoids what could have been generic thriller conventions and goes strictly for the dramatic jugular. Andrzej and the hitchhiker are broadly drawn flip-sides of each other, but events transpire as to not provide a “victor” in the battle between the two. Neither has control of the situation, and neither leaves the situation unscathed as Krystyna has compelled each to confront their true selves. The dominant force here is a powerful feminine nature — she is sea and storm alike — and even when she’s clad again in her conservative attire, she hasn’t transformed back into some diminutive state; she’s simply gone back under the surface. Lurking.