Polish Films Guide: Part 2

Knife in the Water (1962)

Director Roman Polanski

After the first prominent success with the short film Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), Polanski makes his feature film debut which becomes Poland’s first to be Oscar-nominated. Knife in the Water is a psychological drama that follows three characters stuck in a rivalry and sexual tension.

Andrzej and his wife Krystyna are traveling to the lake for a yachting cruise and pick up a young hitchhiker on their way. Despite the aroused antagonism between the hitchhiker and Andrzej, the latter offers him to join their overnight sailing trip. The young man accepts the invitation, but as the sailing trip goes on, the feud between the two men heats up. Each strives for the attentions of Krystyna and tries to appear as the alpha male. Andrzej is older and needs to show his superiority: he takes out a pocket knife and taunts the hitchhiker with it. He accidentally drops the knife overboard, but the fight is inevitable. This major turning point becomes the reference to the film title.

Something is definitely not clear with this marriage even before the appearance of the hitchhiker, and the mere motive to pick him up is certainly questionable and suspicious. In 1963, Roman Polanski’s debut as a feature-length director brought Poland its first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language.

Interesting fact: in the cast of three actors, only Leon Niemczyk had previous professional acting experience.


The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Director Wojciech Jerzy Has

Let’s distract for a bit from psychological realism and turn to another prominent director, Wojciech Has. His favorite genre invariably includes elements of fantasy, gothic motives, and dreamy sceneries. The Saragossa Manuscript is set in the Napoleonic era and tells the story of an officer who accidentally finds the mysterious writing. He then embarks on a trip through Spain meeting a wide range of characters with their own stories to tell. Thus the elements like Cabbalism, Spain’s Islamic past, and gypsies mix together and make up what’s called a frame story, leading the viewer from the main story into a smaller one (or several ones).

The Saragossa Manuscript received a special award from Cinema Writers Circle Awards in Spain (1972) and entered the compilation of digitally restored films Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.


Illumination (1973)

Director Krzysztof Zanussi

Krzysztof Zanussi’s third feature film helped him emerge as a rising talent in Polish cinema. Prior to his career as a director and screenwriter, Zanussi studied physics and philosophy at universities in Warsaw and Krakow. His study and scientific experience became part of the plot for a documentary film Illumination.

Franciszek Retman is a young physicist who looks for the answers to existential questions of human life. Due to the family situation, Franciszek interrupts his studies and tries several jobs completely unrelated to the direction of his own interests. He goes on a quest for the meaning beyond and discovers that appliance of physics helps understand only one aspect of a human life. Franciszek then switches to biology, but it doesn’t reveal all the mysteries of the human heart to the full, and merely illuminates them.

The character of Francis Retman is the embodiment of physicists, astronomers, and philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz.

In 2014, The Illuminations entered Martin Scorsese’s selection of Masterpieces of Polish Cinema presented at Polish film festival in the USA and Canada.