If the bourgeois ideal has really been liquidated behind the Iron Curtain, the Polish drama Knife in the Water does little to prove it. In telling the tale of a Warsaw couple's sailboat holiday, writer-director Roman Polanski depicts a Communist life complete with portable radios and Prince Albert tobacco. More surprisingly, the story makes no effort to grapple with the ideological issues its materialism raises. The striking affluence of the characters is ignored and they are examined without regard to the society that surrounds them.
The film opens as a car (a tidy Peugeot 403) speeding along a country road stops to pick up a hitch-hiker. The car's driver, a dapper sports-writer of forty, is challenged by the youth's self-as-surance and invites the lad to spend the day on a boat with him and his handsome wife. The boy accepts and the three set to sea. With him the boy brings a knife--a phallic, contractile affair. "I'm a hiker," he explains. "I use it to cut through things." In time the knife comes to represent masculinity and the balance of strength on the boat.
Between the two men there is always the woman. Clad in a less-than adequate bikini, she watches the struggle develop, soothing a pride here and averting a challenge there. The youth takes little notice of her at first but soon comes to appreciate the solace she offers. For her part, she enjoys the boy's sensitivity--a quality long since abandoned by her husband.
In a final confrontation, the man throws the knife overboard and knocks the boy (who has protested that he can't swim)in after it. The lad disappears and the wife, convinced that he has drowned, berates her husband as a murderer and a coward. The man, beaten and scared, leaves the boat and swims for shore. From behind a buoy, where he has been hiding, the boy swims back to the boat and triumphantly seduces the wife.
Polanski is a graduate of Poland's state run school of cinema, yet the tale lacks any propogandistic overtones and could be set on a lake anywhere. Ideologically, it owes a great deal more to Freud than to Marx for the drama is one of personalities and not of social systems.
The boy (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is the classic student--dishevelled, poor and ambitious. "I know," his lover muses, "you sleep six in a room and you have to take her to the park where it's so cold you can't even unbutton her blouse." But there is really little difference between the young Pole and his older nemesis. "You're just like him," the woman tells the youth, "only half his age, weaker, and more stupid." And still she makes love to the boy. It is here-in the film's negativistic conclusion--that Polanski shows' his true affinities. His style is that of Antonioni, Fellini, or Truffaut; his art is emphatically free of his ethnic (or political) surroundings.
Knife's success testifies to its breadth of appeal. This summer the movie won the International Film Critics Award at Venice and took First Prize at the New York Film Festival. With subtitles in a score of languages the film is presently touring the world. It is a sensitive story well told, and it is one more proof that fine cinema demands neither gargantuan budgets nor stunt men. May it live to laugh at Cleopatra.