Andrzej, a sports journalist, and Krystyna, his wife, are driving in their luxurious car for a day's holiday in the Masurian Lakeland. On the way they give a lift to a young hitchhiker.
A beautiful yacht is waiting for them in the marina and they invite the boy on board. While cruising the lakes, Andrzej makes an effort to impress him by his financial status, life experience, and wife. Andrzej's behaviour makes the boy scorn and deride him in front of the wife. The conflict of the two men continues to escalate. A heated argument ensues and the boy, hit by Andrzej, falls into the lake and disappears. Andrzej, horrified, jumps into the lake to save him, but cannot find him and thinking that a tragedy had taken place, steers to the coast to notify the police. Meanwhile the boy, who had been hiding behind a buoy and witnessed Andrzej's desperate search and Krystyna's bitter reproaches, returns to the yacht. He overnights on board and seduces Krystyna. In the morning, while the yacht is on its way to the marina, the boy jumps out and Krystyna pulls in on her own. She learns that Andrzej has chickened out and not alarmed the police. Krystyna confesses to him that she has betrayed him, but Andrzej refuses to believe her.
I wanted my first feature film to be cool, brain-worked, construed, and precisely, almost formalistically constructed. It was to resemble a classical thriller: a married couple take on board of their yacht a passenger who then vanishes in mysterious circumstances. My idea from the very start was to show a conflict-rich interaction between characters confined in a limited space. (Roman Polański, Roman. Warszawa 1989)
The fascinating artistic effect of 'Nóż w wodzie' is the result of teamwork involving collective improvisation. The style of the picture seems to have been shaped chiefly by a quartet composed of Roman Polanski as director (bandleader and arranger of it all) and co-writer; Jerzy Skolimowski as co-script writer and superb dialogue writer; Jerzy Lipman as cinematographer; and Krzysztof Komeda as composer and performer of the score. In short: 'all stars'. It is to them that the film owes its intense atmosphere, spontaneity, vibration, colour and drive(Marek Hendrykowski Kwartalnik Filmowy, 1997).
As tension and antagonisms grow, Komeda's music intensifies the nervousness, vagueness, irony that has marked the characters' style from the start. A conflict of ambition escalates between the two men, while the woman seems no more than a catalyst accelerating the violent, uncontrolled expressions of their bruised egos. But then there is the conflict between her and the husband, one that we guess to be there from the start without knowing its nature or causes. The explanation arrives unexpectedly through music - the key to the riddle is provided by the lyrics of the song sung by the woman at her husband's request. She sings about the useless words between people who lied to each other and loved each other poorly. The music uses one of jazz motives that recur throughout the film. From then on each instrumental rendering of that theme brings to mind the chorus 'We have loved each other poorly... (Alicja Helman, Na ścieżce dźwiękowej. O muzyce w filmie / On the Soundtrack: Film Music, Kraków 1968).
The film started a true media storm in communist Poland. Polanski was attacked for snobbery, yielding to Paris fashions, superficiality. Many opponents of the picture found the journalist's financial status particularly painful. The supporters pointed out utter materialism of the aspirations of the characters and of their relationships, and the bogus rebellion of the boy, his set of values being in no way different (Małgorzata Hendrykowska Kronika kinematografii polskiej 1895-1997 / A Chronicle of Polish Film-Making 1895-1997, Poznan 1999).
Polański's film was arguably the first attempt of the Polish film-making to come out of the closed circle of the historicism of the 'Polish school' with its fixed repertory of topics, complexes, traumas and individual and collective obsessions. In this sense it is a completely new and fresh thing, unknown in our post-war cinema. No Polish director had ever talked like that. (Marek Hendrykowski Kwartalnik Filmowy, 1997)
- Nóż w wodzie / Knife in the Water, Poland, 1961. Directed by Roman Polański, screenplay by Roman Polański, Jerzy Skolimowski, Jakub Goldberg, director of photography: Jerzy Lipman, production design by Bolesław Kamykowski, music by Krzysztof Komeda-Trzcinski, sound: Halina Paszkowska, editor: Halina Prugar. Featuring: Leon Niemczyk (Andrzej), Zygmunt Malanowicz (Young Boy), Jolanta Umecka (Krystyna), Anna Ciepielewska (Krystyna's voice), Roman Polański (Young Boy's voice). Produced by: Zespół Filmowy "Kamera", 1961. Black and White, 35 mm, 2762 m, 94'.
- FIPRESCI award at the Venice International Film Festival (1962)
- Złota Kaczka / Golden Duck - "Film" readers'award (1963)
- Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival (1963)
- Academy Award nomination for a "foreign language film" (1963)
- Young West-German Critics Award at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (1964)
- Brown Dolphin at the Teheran International Film Festival (1965)
- FIPRESCI award at the Panama International Film Festival (1966)
Date: 2001; updated: October 2003