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The Forgotten: The Apocalypse of St. Andrzej

The First Part
Andrzej Zulawski swings his camera like a steel fist. Indeed, right at the start of his first feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), after a soldier on horse back has ridden right into the living room of a country house, the camera lens briefly assumes the POV of a rifle butt crashing down onto the leading lady’s temple, with such violence that I wonder how he avoided actually braining her.
This full-on approach – seeking to escape the dreaded academicism he saw in cinema all around him, Zulawski went hand-held whenever possible, and deployed the lens not as an eye but as the probing hand of a surgeon – is balanced and maybe unbalanced by the writer-director’s eager embrace of confusion and ambiguity in the narrative, but first –
Having lost his family to the mounted soldiers, a Polish resistance fighter, codenamed Grizzly, is sent to a meeting which turns out to be a trap. Fleeing through the streets (familiar to viewers of The Pianist – broad thoroughfares, with tall lowering slabs of buildings and confusing jumbles of alleyways), wounded, he ascends a stair and is fortuitously rescued by the appearance of another man dressed just like him (like a Melville hero, in fact, in raincoat and fedora), who is shot and dragged off by the police. Stumbling into his doppelganger’s apartment, Grizzly finds the man’s wife giving birth (with typical bluntness, Zulawski inserts footage of a real infant making its debut on the world stage: messy births are a mainstay of Zulawskian cinema) and finds himself with a replacement for the wife and child he lost in scene one.
The Second Part
Having set up a compelling, disorientating and breathless scenario, Zulawski proceeds to stir it into abstraction and schizoid terror. Things start to make less sense, or at least seem to. The fact that Grizzly keeps seeing his dead son is easy enough to account for, but it leaves the viewer a little punchy, softened up for the weirdness to come. Grizzly’s new “wife” is a dead ringer for his first, although nobody can see the resemblance but him (and us). Zulaswki often creates shattered worlds where cause and effect, identity and the barrier between life and death are savagely disrupted. Here, characters keep saying they are “feeding lice”, and I wondered if this was some obscure Polish expression which perhaps should have been better translated, but NO –
Basing the story on his own father’s life in the resistance, Zulawski had learned that people were actually employed to donate their blood to lice, which fed on them through the wire mesh of little boxes attached to the ankles. This was all in the name of producing anti-typhus vaccine. The people thus employed were actually carrying typhus, so they were left well alone by the Germans. And so the job attracted many members of the resistance.
For Zulawski, the idea of young people giving their blood for a cause, and voluntarily carrying a disease, was a fine metaphor for war. Some of the film’s most disturbing imagery is the microscopic documentary views of the lice, which take over the film at the end, turning the screen into a writhing mass.
The Third Part
Zulawski’s war feels like it will never end, which makes sense if one considers the position of Poland when he made the film, still under the thumb of an invading power. Like Paul Verhoeven's protagonists in Soldier of Orange and Black Book, Zulawski's resistance never seems to achieve anything, and the one mission depicted is an utterly botched rescue attempt to save Grizzly's lookalike, a man whom everyone agrees has no strategic importance whatsoever. Deriving his title from the biblical apocalypse, he creates a powerful sensation of nightmare, with spatial dislocation (long hand-held camera chases that make progressively less sense), psychological disintegration and performances peaking towards sheer hysteria.
The music is a combination of trembling xylophonic tiptoeing (recalling Melville again) orchestral insect menace, and anachronistic blasts of fuzz guitar. The colours tend to slate-blue (Melville yet again), and the dervish-like camera work adds drunken fervour to the already hyped-up performances. Everything stands on a knife-edge between absurdity and the abyss. Rarely has a filmmaker begin his career by so boldly charting out the territory he intends to explore.
Interviewed for Second Run’s excellent DVD, Zulawski (charm itself) observes that the film, a big festival hit in ’71 when the Polish censors reluctantly passed it, had entered a half-remembered half-life in cinemateques and on television, but now seems to be re-emerging into the light. A real renaissance for this surreal, political, bold and utterly distinctive film-maker would be most welcome. And probably quite harrowing.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
I’d never heard of this film (or Zulawski) before, but I’m intrigued. For some reason, I kept thinking of Inland Empire while reading your piece — perhaps it’s just the Polish connection, though…
There’s a connection with Lynch — Zulawski seems drawn to fugue-states, confusions of identity, doubles, and dream-like narrative turns. There’s a different flavour overall, but Lynch’s more bludgeoning, loud moments, also relate to Zulawski.
Excellent write-up. This film was one of the first to offer a new vision (and I think that term applies very much!) of the Polish war-time experience, and contemporary [party] critics had a hard time dealing with it: minimizing it as war film and concentrating on it as an apocalyptic piece. Its disregard for politics, and careful non-portrayal of either the non-communist resistance as heroes (as in some of the films of the “Polish Film School” of the late 50s) or the communist resistance as saviours (as in the films of the early 50s and later 60s, 70s) made it a tough nut to crack it because couldn’t be condemned or praised for the usual reasons. The gloomy atmosphere and end-of-world vibe made the period seem hopeless, which actually went against both dominant war narratives, but made the communists especially miffed because it painted the occupation and resistance as the end of something rather than the beginning of a new socialist state. Plus, more on the lice: :P
I love this film, Zulawski seems to do something different with handheld camera to almost everybody else in cinema – there’s a precision to his frenzy that I find overwhelming. For instance – about forty minutes into the film, there’s one of the most stunning and disturbing stunts I’ve ever seen, where a man runs out onto a balcony, maybe ten-fifteen feet from the camera, screams and throws himself over. He falls the thirty-odd feet to the ground, the camera tilts to follow, he falls – or seems to fall – directly on his head. The camera whips away and we see no more. Did it happen at all? Was it some sort of trick of the lens? Zulawski shows us everything, but in a way that makes us wonder if what we see is even possible. I want to see everything he’s made (and I have a strange bootleg of his sf epic On the Silver Globe sitting unwatched on my shelf, tempting me, as I type) but at the same time everything he’s made is part of the same whole, unbroken work of art, and if you see one film of his you have seen the lot, in a way. Another excellent (if far too short for my liking) piece on another great neglected work, David.
Thanks guys. Excellent background, Pacze. Paul, I just watched The Silver Globe and it’s Quite something. Zulawski’s solution to the problem of the film being incomplete is very beautiful. Unfortunately, the subtitling on my copy is virtually nonsensical. But visually it’s like nothing ever seen — it’s what Jodorowsky’s DUNE might have been like, in a way.
David, I’m only now coming to this write-up several years after the fact upon watching this film tonight. And so grateful for your insights and those of my fellow commenters above. I found this film disturbing—of course—but also quite beautiful. And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it made my skin itch. The power of suggestion. I was especially struck by the scene where our protagonist is being chased in the first part and the camera’s POV shifts back and forth in a tug-of-war that you can feel as a spectator. First it’s on our protagonist backing up to get away and the camera chases him adversarily and then it cuts to an advancing vehicle so that the camera needs to back up to get away. I loved that moment of tension. Thank you for yet another fine piece.
Glad you enjoyed the film and the piece! Yes, something about the sheer weight and momentum of the camera, combined with the reverse angle motion you describe, really wrenches the viewer out of his/her seat!

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