Polanski’s debut, and his only fully Polish production, combines brilliant cinematography, by Jerzy Lipman, with a claustrophobic narrative of a threesome on the, mostly, open lake. Polanski made a virtue of the cramped conditions, on a yacht, of the shoot by using deep focus compositions such as the one below. You get the impression of being close to the action at the same time as seeing the open spaces that surround the yacht.
The opening sequence renders two, of the three, protagonists literally faceless as their visages are obscured behind the car windscreen. The moment Polanski’s name, as director, leaves the screen they appear. But even then we can’t hear what they are saying; they may be bickering. The ‘young man’, a hitchhiker, is picked up and it becomes clear that Andrzej wishes to show off; probably to impress his wife, Krystyna. Despite their, putatively, communist milieu, Andrzej and Krystyna appear to be the quintessential bourgeois couple; he’s a journalist, and they have their own yacht. They aren’t simply at loggerheads, however, as they obviously enjoy the teamwork required in sailing. There’s also no simplistic opposition that favours the young man (Polanksi was in his late 20s when the film was released) who’s shown to be both immaturely petulant as well as having an affecting naiveté.
I’ve no problem in labelling Polanski an auteur and it’s no surprise that the tension between the ‘young man’ (that’s all he’s known as) and the older man should surface. However, the ‘twisted’ element often associated with Polanski is relatively subdued in this film.
It’s a striking debut and allowed Polanski a calling card to make films in Britain as he Khrushchev inspired ‘thaw’ had refrozen, and the Cold War got chillier; the Polish Establishment weren’t impressed by Knife on the Water, western critics were.