Writing’s On the Wall: Close-Up on Andrzej Żuławski’s "Possession"

A monster picture, marital drama, tainted romance, black comedy, oblique espionage thriller & psychotronic allegory.
Michael Pattison
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Possession is playing March 12 - April 11, 2016 in the United States.

In and out, my mind goes
In and out, he goes
To show me it’s cruel
My trust in you
Berlin is drowning me
— “Drowning in Berlin,” Mobiles
It begins on foot, and ends in the heavens. On 13 February 2014, I took a night off from watching films at the Berlin Film Festival and rode the U-Bahn to Moritzplatz. Between 1961 and 1990, when the German capital was divided, Moritzplatz was one of several stations known as the last in West Berlin: after passing through it, trains proceeded through a succession of ‘ghost stations’ located within (and under) GDR terrain, not stopping again until the line re-emerged on the ‘more democratic’ side of the Berlin Wall.
Above ground, it’s less than 300 feet from Moritzplatz to the corner of Sebastianstrasse and Luckauer Strasse: location of the four-story Altbau where Isabelle Adjani keeps, feeds and mates with a green-eyed ogre in Possession (1981), the brilliantly bonkers fourth feature by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. I’d seen the film almost a year previously: March 2013, from a pink-tint print at the Star & Shadow Cinema in Newcastle, Northeast England. Adjani plays Anna, whose husband Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a mysterious business trip to find their marriage has fallen apart. Separated from Anna, Mark pays a private investigator to follow his wife. The hired sleuth tails her to Sebastianstrasse 87, where she’s living on the first floor.
On the night I visited the front doors were open—though the apartment itself wasn’t. Ascend the stairs, come back down. Not much else to see. Outside, in the dew-sapped road, a double-bricked curve marks the path of the Wall, running parallel to the apartment block before curling suddenly away from it. In the film, we see the Wall runs in such proximity to the building that it creates a thin, open-air corridor: Anna (groceries clutched, mouth agape) doesn’t so much enter her apartment as escape into it, chased along this ominously shadowy stretch by another figure—whose presence alone must necessarily mean danger.
Possession is a monster picture long before we see Anna’s glutinous, gluttonous pet. “Come and admire him,” Mark says to his wife in an early scene, referring to their seven-year-old son Bob. Neill’s strangely spirited line-delivery evokes a crazed scientist, the type who turns out to be the real villain in a Universal horror, rather than a plausibly proud family man. Are Bob and the monster connected? Several scenes imply as much—and the final, humanoid form of the squishy creature suggests that it could be the boy’s visually plausible surrogate father.
But Possession isn’t just a monster picture. It’s a marital drama, a tainted romance, a black comedy, an oblique espionage thriller and a psychotronic allegory that unfolds at an absurdly, even farcical pace. Before watching it again recently, following its director’s death from cancer at the age of 75, I had forgotten just how funny the film is. Bleak, yes, but with an all-out commitment to well-timed sight gags that makes the whole thing endearing. One hilariously inexplicable example sees Neill turn to indulge in a brief kick-about with some tykes playing soccer—only moments after he’s watched a car fall from the back of a transporter truck.
Żuławski's compositional design is as immaculate as his inter-scene planning. On the one hand, we have Neill swaying violently back and forth on a rocking chair, his knees bobbing up into frame as his head nearly disappears out of it. On the other, we cut from an image of Neill pivoting on a swivel chair to an apartment door being vigorously swung open. If this is a horror, it’s one whose energies are formed around kinesis rather than the suggestion of dormant dread. When they can’t speak, Żuławski's characters suffer intense seizures.
Movement, stasis. The film’s tensions (dramatic, emotional, aesthetic) all seem rooted to the liminal geographies of West Berlin—to urban pockets so visibly close to a cut-off world that they risk becoming contaminated by it at any moment. Mark’s P.I. calls to confirm Anna’s address from an incongruous, cartoon-yellow phone-box opposite her Sebastianstrasse apartment, before purchasing some grub from a fast-food kiosk that sells Fanta, Sprite and Coca-Cola. Democracy’s final boast: a daft, colorful outpost against the unremittingly gray Wall behind.
Żuławski opens on the Wall itself. A line of concrete monoliths, propped up in unison, stretches to infinity, delineating a no man’s land of gravel, grass, mud. Y-shaped iron supports, but no barbed wire: it’s a space at the end of its life, beyond upkeep. We trace the dilapidated shells of adjoining buildings with a sideways track: crab-like, non-human. We come to infer that these shots intimate Mark’s return home in a taxi, but only in a Żuławski film might we assume the vantage point of a character apparently viewing the passing landscape from an implausibly perpendicular angle.
The first text we see in the film—its first explicit message—is a fleetingly-seen but distinct-enough graffito: DIE MAUER MUß WEG. The Wall Must Go. There are, in fact, two homes within the cement snake’s grip. Anna and Mark live in a Neubau apartment on Bernauer Strasse, which looks over the concrete barricade into East Berlin: behind the guards that gaze up at the couple through binoculars, we see the crumbling ruins of apartments, boarded and bricked up in the 1960s to prevent citizens from defecting from their own windows.
Żuławski makes the most of the architecture: we’re first shown the red-bricked exterior of the postwar Bernauer Strasse block from its southwest corner, looking northeast through a four-story rectangular opening. The dual composition is repeated often, in the apartment itself and, most strikingly, when Anna meets Mark in Café Einstein by sitting right-angled from him, sharing a visual space that’s spliced right down the middle into a hostile grid of divergent, rather than intersecting, lines. (Mirrors, too: beware doppelgangers!)
These found spaces are worked into a vivid, psychosomatic reality. Harsh geometries abound. The camera’s quadrilateral movement, as it follows an arrangement of ceiling-fixed lights when Mark meets his ruthless employers; those bullet-like tracking shots as Mark rides a motorcycle through the enclosed courtyards of a riverfront industrial complex; that single-take murder scene in the close confines of a squalid washroom, a luridly fluid (!) space that’s nonetheless compartmentalized into rigidly partitioned cubicles. Scenes shot in more open spaces, such as when Anna boards a U-Bahn train at Gleisdreieck, create a world that fizzes with all the enthralling, time-capsule energy of a now-or-never documentary (look out for the conveniently-open carriage doors, as the train pulls into the station, that allow us to board parallel to Anna rather than behind her).
Anna’s malaise—if it is one—is a desire to flee. Possession may never venture east of the Wall, but its meaning is clear: the grass, in Berlin, is always greener. “I guess when you’re there you want to be home,” Mark figures later in the film, “and when you’re home you want to be there.” As the physical division of capitalism and what others were calling communism entered its final decade, Żuławski's film dared to suggest that the two might be bedfellows after all—each with its own tyrannies.
Though Anna insists she isn’t seeing anyone else, Mark discovers she has been. Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) has been sending Anna postcards of the Taj Mahal; shirt opened, he bests Mark in a fistfight with some outlandishly balletic moves. (Of the many strange things about Possession, the most remarkable might be that Bennent was sixty years old when it was filmed.) But Heinrich too has his limitations. Though his interactions with his rival are jovial in nature, we see a controlling, jealous side whenever he’s with Anna. Our heroine finds herself stuck between two insufferable egos. Each lover, in his way, is a variant of the pseudo-cerebral, look-what-you-made-me-do guise in which domestic violence is often packaged (“please don’t make me force you,” one of the men literally utters at one point).
Neither male can contain Anna. Her turning point, if she has one, is perhaps that wonderful moment when an epiphanic pleasure registers across her face. It comes in the aforementioned scene in which a car falls from a truck: having caused the accident, not long after exiting her Bernauer Strasse apartment following a bloody beating from Mark, she seems to realize her own agency—and the powerful ramifications that a simple act of rejection, if not rebellion, can carry.
In the film’s most famous sequence, Adjani takes her character’s fugue-like despair to extreme levels of delirium, suffering a mental breakdown—and some kind of horrible miscarriage—in a passageway in the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn. Another found space, another border: located on the boundary of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Tempelhof districts, the station served the now-defunct Tempelhof Airport. It’s the grot on the ground that does it: this scene, so ridiculously silly it’s deeply disturbing, is entrancing not only due to the actress’s transcendent performance, but because it’s also shot in such a visibly real-world setting.
Where could be more fitting to encounter and endure such apocalyptic terror than the subterranean ducts of a literally divided city? For many, the film’s most unshakable image will be that of blood and gunge leaking from Adjani: deranged, vulnerable, bodily in the most grotesque sense. But for me it’s when she ascends the escalator from the platform: in that brief moment, before Anna the character splatters the milk and eggs she’s carrying against the grimy tiled wall, we witness Adjani the actress, preparing for her scene at the same time as she’s already acting it.
She floats up to the camera, a ghost half-carried by the upward conveyor and half-gliding by her own accord. Past the wall clock (eleven a.m.), past the information booth, into the subway leading to Dudenstrasse (maintenance mop in background, floor half-damp in the way urban footways can be). As she cocks her head and laughs, Adjani is possessed by that rare but palpable genius that a director, even one as precise as Żuławski, can only guide so far—before he too must submit to it, allowing its brilliance to unfurl, take hold, take flight.


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