October 22, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
A Program of Early Roman Polanski Films
Knife in the Water. 1962. Poland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Knife in the Water. 1962. Poland. Directed by Roman Polanski

These notes accompany the </em>Early Roman Polanski Program</a> screening on October 23, 24, and 25 in Theater 2.</p>

Roman Polanski, who just turned 80, has had such a complex life that it often obscures the fact that he is one of the most successful and idiosyncratic filmmakers of the last half-century. All this has been accomplished in spite of his childhood as a fugitive hiding from the Nazis on the streets of Krakow and later in the Polish countryside; the death of his mother in a concentration camp; the creative suppression of living for many years in Communist-dominated Poland; the ghastly murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson gang; and his four decades in legal limbo arising from his sexual abuse of a minor (documented in Marina Zemovich’s two films, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out). Polanski has said, movies “are my life’s blood.” As I wrote at the time of MoMA’s Polanski retrospective two years ago: “Many of his films are infused with a mysterious, difficult-to-define sense of dread, which is understandable given much of his early life experience.” His 1984 autobiography begins, “For as far back as I can remember, the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred,” and I suggest that the director uses the fantastical elements of cinema to make sense of the extraordinary reality he has experienced.

There is a strangeness in his early shorts, and Noz w wodzie (Knife in the Water)—his thesis film at the famous Lodz film school, which was selected for the first New York Film Festival, was nominated for an Oscar, and is probably the best student film ever made—exhibits a quality of menace that pervades almost all his films, including Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, and his recent award-winning The Ghost Writer. Like Alfred Hitchcock, who is in some sense Polanski’s stylistic mentor, the threat of chaos is always overlaid with wryly absurdist, dark humor. Like Hitchcock in Lifeboat or Rope, for example, Polanski, out of necessity, is able to create something highly cinematic in a very constrained space and using only a few characters. Both the woman and the young man in Knife in the Water were essentially neophyte actors. Although Polanski later expanded his vision to broad canvases in film like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and his Oscar-winning and deeply moving Holocaust drama, The Pianist, the limitations placed on the director in Knife in the Water bring about a virtual explosion of sexual tension.

Zygmunt Malanowicz, the film’s somewhat electrifying young boy, has gone on to a long career, working for distinguished directors like Jerzy Skolimowski (who cowrote the screenplay for Knife) and Andrzej Wajda (who helped Polanski get his start), but he never attained the cult-like potential of replacing Zbigniew Cybulski, Wajda’s James Dean–like muse, who died tragically in 1967. Leon Niemczyk (the husband), a veteran of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, of the U. S. Army during the occupation of Germany, and of struggles against the Soviet occupiers of Poland, had an extremely long career. Jolanta Umecka made only a few more films.

Polanski is currently at work on D, his thriller based on the Dreyfus affair, which deals with anti-Semitism and witch-hunts—subjects on which he is well-versed.

The screening on Friday, October 25, will be introduced by James Greenberg, author the beautiful new book Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, published by Abrams and with a foreword by Mr. Polanski. Mr. Greenberg is editor-in-chief of the DGA Quarterly. His book chronicles Polanski’s genius and “the indelible mark he’s left on film history.” Mr. Greenberg will sign copies of his book following Friday’s screening.

On a sad note, Stanley Kauffmann died at 97 two weeks ago. During the 1960s and 1970s, among New York intellectuals devoted to film, he was the third part of a triumvirate of influential critics, alongside Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Kauffmann was deeply rooted in theater and literature (he even wrote plays and novels), but his reviews in The New Republic and his stately presence lent a touch of respectability to those of us obsessed with John Ford, Howard Hawks, and a host of others. As William Grimes, in his New York Times obituary, indicated, Kauffman saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura as an offshoot of Anton Chekhov. For auteurists, he seemed too often to miss some of the most cinematic points, but it was good to have him around as a counterweight to some of our excesses.