It’s such a classic snob remark: oh, I prefer his early work. In the case of Polanski, however, it’s thunderously true. The Pianist won Oscars because it was a dignified statement about war’s horrors, and technically excellent. But it also demanded that other classic snob comment: worthy but dull. It wasn’t as annoying as Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, but was less convincing than Schindler’s List. It was, basically, Oscar-fodder. Polanski may have meant it, but he made the earth-shattering seem rather mundane. Whereas what made him special, as an egomaniacal young turk, was that his films made the mundane seem earth-shattering.
His first three full-length works?Knife In The Water, Repulsion and Cul-De-Sac?gathered for this box set alongside eight of his early, intensely surrealist shorts (see “Short But Bittersweet”, right), are miraculous pieces of cinema. Timeless, monochrome and riddled with murky mystery, they sneak into your dreams and nightmares and squat there, cackling. They deal with fear, competitiveness and master-servant sexual insecurity, with a lethal instinct for cutting to the universal quick. Welding the absurd to the atmospheric, they don’t over-explain themselves. It’s all done with smoke and mirrors, and knowing just how far to push so as to leave you teetering on sanity’s edge. If he could have brought an ounce of this freakishness, this clammy claustrophobia, to The Pianist, he’d’ve made the strongest WWII film imaginable. He’d never have got near on Oscar, of course, but we’d’ve got nearer to what I think he wanted to convey.
Strangely, Knife In The Water was Oscar-nominated (losing out honourably, in ’62, to Fellini’s 8