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.