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The Third Part of the Night

The Third Part of the Night

Trzecia czesc nocy

Andrzej Zulawski

Poland, 1971

Credits

Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 18 June 2008

Source Second Run DVD

And the first angel sounded the trumpet and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood and the third part of the trees was burnt up and all green grass was burnt up.

Andrzej Zulawski is one of those directors whose films are more often read about than seen. The one exception is Possession, his English-language sci-fi/horror film that got a reasonable international release all the way back in 1981. Actually, “sci-fi/horror” hardly begins to describe the utter weirdness of Possession, which, it’s no surprise to learn, is as much about the breakdown of Zulawski’s relationship with Malgorzata Braunek, The Third Part of the Night’s female lead, as about inter-species coitus. Carlo Rambaldi, fresh from Alien and about to move on to E.T., provides the tentacled slimy monster that is glimpsed coupling with Isabelle Adjani in a decrepit Berlin apartment, but these sci-fi elements hardly register.

Instead what predominates in Possession is the emotional tone of near-hysteria as the couple formed by Adjani and Sam Neill tear each other apart in performances of heightened intensity. Zulawski’s world is that of a psychodrama whose protagonists writhe and screech in extremity. In Possession’s case this took absolute form in the compelling scene of Adjani’s miscarriage in the slimy subway, and then, as if to further underline Zulawski’s distance from any standard kind of psychological “realism” – which you might expect, given the film’s basis in the director’s own lived experience – there is overlaid on the top a tone of apocalyptic doom and reckoning.

In this respect, what’s most striking about The Third Part of the Night is how, in his very first film, Zulawski’s themes and aesthetics are already full-formed. The film is literally swept along by the swirl of main character Michal’s emotional state in an ever-changing flamboyance of camera technique. It’s a subjective vision, where the lines between reality, memory, fantasy, and dream become increasingly blurred. It also proposes a world whose historical setting – Poland under Nazi occupation – is transformed into a spiritual vision of suffering, redemption, and an impending apocalypse.

The second angel sounded the trumpet and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea and the third part of the sea became blood. And the third part of those creatures died which had life in the sea and the third part of the ships was destroyed.

The Apocalypse is literally invoked in the opening shots of Third Night as we hear a woman (she turns out to be Michal’s wife Helena) reading from the Book of Revelations as a series of dark and gloomy landscape scenes move us closer and closer, shot by shot, to the country house where Michal and his family are staying—he has a young son, Lukasz, and his parents are visiting. There is a deliberate strangeness and mystery to these opening scenes. We learn that Michal is recovering from an illness although he barely seems to remember this, that he seems to blame Helena for something, and that Michal’s father refuses to meet Helena—he’s waiting outside to go for a walk with Michal and Lukasz.

There’s a strange ceremoniality to the way that Helena now stares at herself in the mirror, dresses in formal attire, and waits as if she knows of the violent fate that is in store. Certainly, there’s a strong sense of foreboding, which Zulawski reinforces in the way he tracks unevenly after Michal and his father in one direction and Lukasz in another, all the while the trees offering a varying and unsteady barrier between us and the characters. When the violence comes, it does so with explosive force, as a German on horseback literally bursts through the front door into the interior of the house. There’s an inexplicable cruelty to the killing now of Michal’s wife, mother, and son, as he watches helplessly from a distance. No explanation is offered, no significance is given to these random deaths apart from their very meaninglessness, the expression of a cruel and hostile universe that Michal’s father invokes in his blasphemous mock-prayer: “Oh, God, who does not lead us. Oh, God, who allows the fragile to be killed and who elevates blind hatred. Oh, God, who allows cruelty to be propagated and people to torment each other. Oh, God, who elevates the most evil ones and puts the whip into their hands. Oh, merciless God, have no mercy upon us.

And the third angel sounded the trumpet and a great star fell from heaven burning as it were a torch and it fell on the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters. And the third part of the waters became wormwood. And many men died of the waters because they became bitter.

It’s clear that with Third Night we’re not dealing with the standard kind of Polish Second World War movie where a depiction of the trials of war and occupation are a means of defining the nature of Polish identity, a kind of collective nationalist consciousness-raising—such as you get with Andrzej Wajda’s films, whether from the fifties (Lotna), the seventies (Landscape After Battle), or the current day (Katyn). Any attempt that there might be on Zulawski’s part to define the nature of the Polish soul is in any case a negative one, anti-Wajda so to speak, as when Michal’s friend Marian reacts to another randomly meaningless death, the vicious shooting by a German of a young boy in a market, by urging that “a cry must burst out of this country’s soul;” and yet: “It means nothing. The time that is to come will be a time of despair.”

One of the strangest aspects to the film is the subplot of medical experiments – referred to as “feeding” – that Michal submits himself to as a means of employment. This involves sitting in a group around a table in a hospital basement while small packs are attached to their bare legs. In the packs are lice, placed there to feed off the subjects’ blood and then to be subsequently injected with typhus germs in order to produce a vaccine. There’s a surreal, off-kilter feel to these scenes—Zulawski revels in the opportunities offered to film close-ups of the swarming, feeding lice, and of the blood being drawn from the lice in a kind of explosive ball. There’s a symbolism here, too, with Michal’s suffering, invaded, fed-upon body becoming the body of Poland itself. But the biggest surprise to these scenes is that what seems to be a bizarre and surreal imaginative addition to the historical setting, one further feature to add to the film’s metaphysical-philosophical overlayerings, is entirely based on fact. The Rudolf Weigl Institute in Lwów (now L’viv, the largest city in western Ukraine) made typhus vaccine for the German Wehrmacht (Army) and during the Occupation many intellectuals, including Zulawski’s own father Miroslaw, found employment in the Institute as lice feeders.

The fourth angel sounded the trumpet and the third part of the sun was smitten and the third part of the moon and the third part of the stars so that the third part of them was darkened and the day did not shine for a third part of it and the night in like manner.

Third Night’s screenplay is credited to both Zulawskis, father and son, and drawn from the father’s own experiences. Miroslaw was a journalist, diplomat, poet, novelist, and screenwriter, and Andrzej was born in Lwów, the film’s setting, in 1940. The baby that we see born in Third Night is thus in a sense Zulawski’s own self-portrait, too young (the family left Lwów at the end of the war, never to return) to have any significant memory of the film’s events and settings. (It’s worth adding that the massacres and atrocities in wartime Lwów were worse than even what the film touches upon—the Jewish population of 110,000 was reduced to under 300 by 1945).

After the killing of his family Michal returns to Lwów and starts working for the Polish anti-Nazi underground. An operation he’s involved with inevitably goes wrong— Zulawski’s frantic hand-held camera, plunges into dark passages, and abrupt shifts to high-angle and back down again all convey Michal’s fear, panic and confusion. As Michal escapes up a dark apartment building staircase the Gestapo mistakenly shoot and arrest a similarly-dressed man, and this double of Michal’s proves to have a wife, about to give birth, who is in her turn a double of his dead wife Helena. (The two women, Helena and Marta, are played by the same actress, with differing hairstyles being the main distinguishing characteristic—Helena wears hers braided up above the neck, Marta’s hair hangs straight down.) After Michal witnesses the birth of Marta’s child, he effectively takes over the role of the missing husband, and a series of flashbacks now reveal a further double to Michal, Helena’s original husband whom Helena and Michal together had betrayed.

The doublings and repetitions expand in all directions, melding past and present in a narrative that Zulawski at times keeps deliberately opaque and confusing. Michal’s new family with Marta and her newborn baby end up living in the same attic that he had lived in with Helena and Lukasz. In the past, Michal took over the lice-feeding job that Helena’s first husband had done; now Michal takes it up again in his role as the substitute for Marta’s husband Jan. And now he seems to be suffering physically and psychologically from the lice-feeding in the same way that Helena’s husband had. This had reduced the husband to the point where he willingly allowed himself to be caught up in a roundup by the Germans—and that is mirrored in the present when Michal’s sister, a Catholic nun, gives herself into the hands of a German transport, heading, we assume, to a concentration camp.

And the fifth angel sounded the trumpet, and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth and there was given to him the key of the bottomless pit. From the smoke of the pit there came locusts upon the earth and power was given to them, as the scorpions of the earth have power. It was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth nor any green thing, but only the men who have not the sign of God on their foreheads.

Michal’s present and past co-exist within the same physical space. The film’s first flashback, after Michal has assisted Marta in giving birth to her child, is not marked by dissolves or cuts to a clearly delineated separate time and place; instead, Michal’s now-dead son Lukasz appears behind him and leads him (with the camera swinging around and assuming his role in a reverse-track) down a dark passageway into the past, into a bedroom where Helena and the newly-born Lukasz lie. Lukasz will reappear in similar scenes later in the film, and in a crucial scene late in the story the camera will zoom away from the naked Marta and Michal to take in the appearance of Helena, with whom Michal will hold a lengthy conversation before “returning” to Marta.

Zulawski keeps the exact status of these encounters with Michal’s now-dead family imprecise. Are they simply a more novel and more fluid approach to flashbacks on the director’s part? Are they Michal’s fantasies, a mixed product of memory and a guilty conscience? Or are they ghostly apparitions come to haunt Michal? (The excessive, ever-changing, histrionic performance Zulawski demands of his actors hardly shows Michal in control here.) As an indication that this all may be the ravings of Michal’s fevered mind, his sister twice casts doubt on Marta’s resemblance to Helena—on both occasions, Klara states that this is all in Michal’s imagination.

Certainly, Michal appears to will himself to dedicate himself to Marta as an act of redemption for what happened to Helena and Lukasz. When he meets Marta again at the nunnery, he states “Now I now what I must do” at the same time claiming the baby as being simultaneously Marta’s, her husband’s, and his own; and much later Michal tells Marta: “When I’m looking at you, I feel I’ve got another chance to experience what I’ve already experienced in a wrong way,” and to his father (who has praised him for acting in a correct but cruel way) he says: “I can redeem anything I did.”

The real question is whether any of this is possible in the cruel and savage context of his environment, or whether he is doomed from the start. Michal is surrounded by dark and gloomy visions of the world he is suffering in. The blind resistance leader (and what a provocation on Zulawski’s part to show as literally blind the representative of Polish heroic resistance to Nazi oppression) talks of their sinking into a world where all things have become alike, “activity and non-activity, cruelty and indifference.” And when Michal tries to probe the meaning of existence with his father – “What is more important? The things people sacrifice for each other or the things they share and want to save?” – the latter can only respond with a despairing: “To save? Nothing can be saved. The world has crumbled, has got smashed, has vanished.

In the final section of the film, the contours of the realistic setting become hazy as Michal’s desperate mission to save Marta’s husband becomes Michal’s own surrealist-symbolic-psychological journey—attacked by a gang of enraged amputees; not-quite witness to his father’s ritualistic burning of music scores, over which he intones Latin chants; assailed by images of torture and his own death; and then returned to the point from which he started, the house in the country. Michal’s attempts to redeem, to make good the tragedy that befell his own family have come to nothing, and to underline that it is Marta we now see in the house, doing up her hair to turn herself into Helena, and waiting – just as Helena had done at the start of the film – for the onslaught from the horsemen outside, who this time we see in a glimpse through the window are numbered an apocalyptic four. The film’s final image is not for nothing a close-up on a mass of lice, writhing in a deathly struggle, ravenous for blood.

And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.

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