Watch the 3 Best Roman Polanski Short Films From the 1950s

By  · Published on June 20th, 2014

The Criterion Collection

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Today marks both the U.S. theatrical release of Venus and Fur and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. theatrical release of Chinatown. So, let’s just consider it Roman Polanski day. In honor of the occasion, we should just skip his latest (see our review for why) and hold off on watching his 1974 classic for the billionth time. How many of you have seen his early short films? They’re available in proper form on Criterion’s two-disc DVD set for Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, and they can also be found on YouTube. For the latter, there are no English subtitles, but that only matters for one or two that have very minimal dialogue. For the most part, they’re all really “silent” films.

Nine shorts are credited to the actor-turned-director through the start of his academic and professional career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of these, however, is Rower (aka Bicycle), which was a 1955 student work that went unfinished thanks to an error by the lab. That leaves eight survivors. From 1957 there’s Murder, which is a nice short scene of a man being murdered but there’s no story there, Let’s Break the Ball (aka Break Up the Dance), an exceptional work of editing that’s even more stunning when you learn that it’s partly documentary in that it was shot during an actual school dance that Polanski had a bunch of hooligans destroy – some students even got hurt and the young director was nearly expelled as a result. Also made that year was the first of my three favorites, which you can watch below: Teeth Smile (aka Teethful Smile) – which is NSFW.

Like Murder, this is more just a simple scene than a full film, but it does also have a more complete story. A man is walking by a building and notices a naked woman through a window. He stops to watch, of course, and to make the object of his and our voyeuristic pleasure all the more dehumanized, her face is covered by a towel the entire time. Suddenly he’s interrupted by a man who may be her husband, coming out of the building to put out the milk bottles. When he re-enters, the peeping tom goes back to the window only to find the woman replaced by the interrupting husband. More than a half century later, it’s an overdone gag, but Polanski’s version still really works because it’s not played for the big laugh. It’s a little creepier, which makes us feel a bit depraved ourselves, since we’re also made to be voyeurs.

The following year, he made the best of all his shorts with another student production, which is titled Two Men and a Wardrobe. Watch it here:

At one point, Polanski wanted to adapt this 14-minute work into a feature, though that probably would have ruined the magic. The strange, abstract narrative here concerns two men carrying a wardrobe around, having initially emerged from the ocean carrying the thing. The director claims he hadn’t meant for much symbolism, though he did acknowledge that the gist is about an intolerant society and other critics have read the main characters as gay Jews, a double representation of Holocaust victims. The main point realized is that this seaside town is too preoccupied by the otherness of these guys with their allegorical load and laundry – which keeps them from being permitted on public transportation or in cafes or hotels – to notice the true evils amidst, particularly cat killers and murderers.

I like the flowing adventure of Two Men and a Wardrobe, and more than that I love a number of specific shots. The mirror in the wardrobe is responsible for most of these, including the oft-cited close up on a fish that seems to be flying through the sky only to be revealed as sitting atop the overturned piece of furniture where the glass is reflecting the clouds above. Then there’s the shot of the hotel patron checking himself in the mirror as it’s being lifted away, looking – again thanks to the tighter frame – to squash his reflection. Finally, in another moment where the mirror is moving through the shot, the wardrobe inadvertently helps a young woman avoid an attack. It’s a shame when soon after the glass is broken and we get no more of those visuals. As for that cat-attack scene, look out for young Polanski as one of the cruel thugs.

Polanski also appears later in a much larger role in the 1961 short The Fat and the Lean – he’s the second of the titular characters. And aside from some more beautiful shots, that’s one that doesn’t really do anything for me. The director’s performance as a slave to a wealthy fat man is really over the top in a silent comedy way, only without the comedy. He’d do better with a silent comedy sort of thing the next year with the duo-centered Mammals. That one is great for the way it uses a snowy landscape as if it’s a blank space on which two cartoonish characters take turns pulling the other in a sleigh – the seemed absence of setting makes it look like a live-action Chuck Jones short. Still, it’s a little thin for its length. I’m also not a huge fan of his graduation film, 1959’s When Angels Fall, which is the only one (Rower excluded) to incorporate color cinematography. It’s good but not great.

For my third and final favorite, we have to go back a year prior with The Lamp. Watch it here:

Such a simple plot – a man’s doll shop is ironically destroyed in an electrical fire after he upgrades from gas lighting – is made into a masterpiece of tone through its sound design. This is arguably Polanski’s funniest and scariest movie. The dolls and the whispers are, at least for a brief moment, definitely more terrifying than anything in Rosemary’s Baby, which many consider to be one of the best horror films of all time, and is at least on par with the best of Repulsion. Sure, the silliness of the electrical box with its perfect fodder for the Faces In Things twitter feed undercuts some of the nightmare fuel, but then the creepiness of the rest also clashes with that folly and the two moods are made greater, simultaneously, in their contrast. In the end, more irony to ease us out comes in the pull outward from the shop to show that it’s raining outside while the fire blazes on inside.

Once again, for the full collection, you’re best off skipping the YouTube versions and getting the Knife in the Water discs via Criterion. Consider this just an introduction to an amazing short start from one of the great directors of the last 50 years, his latest notwithstanding.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.