In the history of cinema, there are few feature debuts as mysterious, haunting and assured as Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water. Yes, that Roman Polanski: Poland’s most famous filmmaker and one of cinema’s most infamous fiends. If you were to type his name into Wikipedia’s search bar, his picture would pop up with this description: Polish-French film director, producer, writer, actor and rapist.
Polanski’s misdeeds are relatively well known: in 1977, a California grand jury charged the 43-year-old director with five counts of sexual assault against a 13-year-old girl. Polanski plea-bargained his way down to a statutory rape charge but fled the country before a trial could be held. He has remained in Europe ever since.
And so we come to one of the toughest questions facing cinematic appreciation and study: How to approach historical works from a contemporary perspective? The modern-day fervor seems to suggest that not only should the perpetrators be condemned (this seems only fair) but that their works be stricken from the books as well (this seems more harmful than helpful). Is there a happy medium to be found in all this discourse?
Watching cinema, much like writing about it, is a voluntary act. Take this column for instance: Could these 500 words be better used if they discussed another film? Maybe. But it’s not the aim of this column to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On Sunday, April 15, Knife in the Water will screen in the Boedecker Theater’s Essential Cinema series, and, as far as this writer is concerned, Knife in the Water is indeed an essential work both historically and formally. From the film’s indictment of domineering alpha males to its depiction of bourgeois indifference; from Jerzy Lipman’s enchanting black and white photography to Krzysztof Komeda’s evocative jazz score. And let’s not forget Jolanta Umecka’s enigmatic performance as the kept wife who might be pulling more strings than the two men think. Yes, Roman Polanski may be worthy of a boycott, but there were 24 other artists at work on Knife in the Water. It would be a pity to see their work evaporate.
Interestingly, the film courted controversy from day one. Released in 1962 and set aboard a small sailing vessel, Knife traps a married couple and a hitchhiker in a cat and mouse game of sexual politics and class discrepancies. For this, it drew ire from the Communist Party because they thought the film championed the wealthy married couple. They would have most likely buried Knife if it were not for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film — the first for a Polish film — ensuring that Knife in the Water would be screened outside the Iron Curtain.
8½ took home Mr. Oscar that year — an essential among essentials — but Knife in the Water helped bring international attention to the Polish Film School, easily one of the greatest collections of cinematic talent in the world.
On the Bill: Knife in the Water, followed by a talkback with entertainment writer Matthew Klickstein. 4:30 p.m. Sunday, April 15, The Boedecker Theater, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, thedairy.org