Influential director Roman Polanski's first film, Knife in the Water, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1963 Academy Awards. This was a heady accolade for such a young filmmaker and particularly notable because it was his solo effort. With its critical and commercial success he fell into that coveted and quite rare category of director who immediately finds an original voice and vision the first time out. Funded with government subsidies and as such its content and final cut largely beholden to Polish Communist officials, the movie doesn't branch out or explore as much territory as later Polanski films would. Running afoul of Ministry of Culture authorities from the start, they severely disliked the finished picture because it didn't resort to overt politicizing and didn't emphasize the social and doctrinal rhetoric the Party wished to make supremely clear to all viewers. Even so, it does include some very pertinent social criticism floating underneath the narrative, but the primary emphasis is upon the claustrophobia and the tension that builds to uncomfortable heights between three characters in close quarters on a small sailboat.
In particular, the substantive gist of the film revolves around male competitiveness, especially when it comes down to attracting a woman and winning her. A middle class, older, established, arrogant, and thoroughly unpleasant sportswriter parades his physical prowess, skill at boating, and trophy bride in front of a younger, working class rival. However, theirs is not the most stable of relationships and the vast amount of hatred which exists between them is never concealed. The woman soon displays a growing amount of interest in the young man, and the games that began with a pretense of fun between the two males become increasingly hostile, ill-mannered, and violent. By the end, both look not unlike animals in the wild competing for a mate instead of human beings, and this is a point the director emphasizes time and time again.
The greater profundity behind that statement is itself a particularly biting criticism which implies that in the survival of the fittest world of human interaction, true class or social equality is little more than a good intention unfulfilled. One can seek to regulate money or government, but what cannot be controlled are the primal ways in which humans function as uncivilized beings. Hierarchies and class inequality are more complicated than human-made constructs like money and material gain require more regulation than manipulating a few large variables in the hopes of providing total fairness to everyone. The products of a society, the film argues, are less important than the internal human conditioning that has persisted for thousands, if not millions of years. Even political ideology is trumped by fundamental animal nature.
In its day, this message was directed to the inner circle of the Communist party, who espoused egalitarian platitudes and the brotherhood of man while driving BMW's made by evil capitalists, coveting and freely using Western-made goods for their own personal use, and shoring up their power base by severely limiting membership into their own ranks. But two-faced behavior had a way of persisting.
The car that the couple are seem driving in the opening and closing sequences was initially supposed to be a Mercedes, but it was replaced with a more plebian Peugeot during filming to avoid political controversy. The more expensive car was perceived according to the party as an icon of Western luxury and decadence. During the shots, a prominent party member arrived at the plan in the newest model of Mercedes. He was invited by the whole crew with peals of laughter.
As it turns out, pecking orders seemed to be stubborn things that persisted despite valiant efforts to the contrary. When her husband is momentarily doing something else, the wife of the sportswriter boldly addresses the younger working class man by saying, dismissively, "You want to be like him. You'll end up being like him someday, and you'll marry someone like me". She assumes automatically that he'll embrace brutality and viciousness for his own gain eventually and in so doing score a beautiful wife just to make his point plain. As for her own motives in marrying the husband, one can safely assume that romance and love were not part of it. Even in a classless society, some classes are more equal than others. Social climbing and egocentric behavior aside, finding a mate in every society can often be a bare-knuckle brawl but I note that few have ever felt any compulsion to propose ways or establish movements to make dating more equal and fairer to all. I recognize it's not that simple: power, money, personal gain, sexual attraction, and charisma get wrapped up in the pursuit and it would be so much easier to explain, reform, and revise the matter if we could confront one variable at a time.
In our day, we can use the film's basic meaning to temper our expectations and our strategies for improving the world around us. Many of us, myself included, still believe that leveling the playing field for those of us who are less fortunate is a noble purpose and ought to be a moral imperative. The recent debate over Health Care Reform is one such instance, though it is only one. What we must take into account no matter what we do is that civilizations and the civilized impulse have only existed for a reasonably short period of time in the human psyche. The law of the jungle has existed far longer. But lest we feel as though we are swimming up stream, and though it might seem that we are fumbling about in the dark, we are also establishing precedent for subsequent reforms and future efforts which will be undertaken to improve civilization.
The bleak picture Knife in the Water paints might be too pessimistic to inspire, but it does contain a kernel of truth. No system, be it political or economic is going to be perfect and there will always be a certain amount of wealth, power, and influence concentrated at the top. What it might come down to then, is what flaws we find less objectionable. Liberals like myself often find the flaws of the government far more acceptable than the flaws of the private sector. Conservatives often find the flaws of the private sector far more acceptable than those of government.
But if we are united in anything, we are united in our own hypocrisy. Referring again to what Howard Fineman pointed out in a recent column, our attitudes on health care are motivated by a hypocrisy which states that we want small government, but we also want government to attend to our every need. Our definitions of "small government" and "need" vary considerably, but what I do notice is no matter how we define what we want, frequently someone ends up getting shortchanged in the process. Often someone has to pay more and someone else pays less. Often someone ends up with the girl and someone ends up without. We can strong-arm, intimidate, or coerce our way to what we want and create enemies in the process, or we can be too weak-willed, meek, and deferent and never get more than table scraps. It need not always be a zero-sum game but some want to play it that way.
When I think about the people who have lined up to oppose the public option and Health Care Reform, I see an army of true believers in a way of thinking that opposes bipartisanship and finding commonality. Reaching across the aisle might play well in Washington, DC, but among constituents, it is never seriously considered, or never considered at all. It will take more than a single issue to undo a monochrome view of the world. This might be the first step, but the real goal is to show people they don't have to play the same game, which frequently happens to be the only game they have ever known.