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The Third Part of the Night. 1971. Directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Screenplay by Andrzej & Miroslaw Żuławski.
Starring Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Michal Grudzinski, & Marek Walczewski. Polski State Film.
Not Rated. 105 minutes.
Andrzej Żuławski first wowed me with Possession, and after being completely, morbidly enthralled by its wonderfully sickening plot I knew he was a director whose work I’d have to seek out further. He’s gone on to do a lot of different things across several respective genres. However, nowhere is Żuławski more powerful than when trafficking in the realm of horror, whether psychological or otherwise. Of course much of his horror comes out of war, periods of turmoil and upheaval in society, even evident in bits of Possession.
Never is the specter of war and destruction so resonant, so obvious and heavy as it is in The Third Part of the Night. With the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Holocaust and the Nazis, all of World War II raging on just outside the door, this is a film about many things. But chiefly, Żuławski’s dramatic, psychological horror set in wartime concerns the existential damage suffered under the horrible strain of war, and the lengths to which a human will allow themselves to go all to escape it.
The Third Part of the Night is a haunting, harrowing illustration of survivor’s guilt. With the looming figure of WWII and the Holocaust, our main character is left with the guilt of having survived his family. Not only does he try helping everyone else in an attempt at atoning for what he considers as the sin of failure (to protect his family), he continues to see his wife after her death. She appears to him as the pregnant woman, even a couple other times in brief little flashes. The survivor guilt he feels doesn’t allow him to forget the face of his wife, superimposing her memory onto the faces of others. The horrors and depravity of war have driven him to mental illness.
Finally there is a lesson here that history repeats itself; if we do not learn from our mistakes, the same events, or those similar in impact, will continue to transpire. Just as Michal sees the doubles of his wife, then later one of himself, the perpetual nature of a horror like that experienced by the Jewish people during WWII is inescapable if we do not learn something from what’s happened. Slowly, Michal finds that he’s slipping into the life of another man only to later see a vision of himself as this very man. The presence of doubles/doppelgangers is a recurring theme in the work of Żuławski, seen again in both Possession and The Public Woman. Here this aspect serves less of a Hitchcockian-type of narrative device, more like an unsettling element to this story’s surrealism.
Then there’s the end.
Revelation 9:6 “and death shall flee from them” – to me, this is a statement about how the horrors of war, specifically the Nazis and their reign of terror culminating in the Holocaust, drove the Jewish people to such extreme lengths of physical and mental torture even without directly playing a part. Indirectly, many Jews would go in for such jobs as working in a factory like the one in which Michal uses his body to produce vaccines, involving lice, all so they could have a work card that said they were basically guinea pigs letting lice infest them, and that would have the Germans saying MOVE ALONG. In a way, this degradation of the self and the body was a way of them fighting back, but in a twisted sense as it was only doing them harm in the end. Such were the lengths many would go to ensure they didn’t die at the hands of Mengele or some other sadistic Nazi bastard. So that end quote from Revelation comes to represent how the Apocalypse has essentially been brought about through WWII and the Nazi Party, as pestilence and famine and death and war all reign down (Four Horsemen) on Europe, in this case Poland specifically. At the same time, “death shall flee from them” is almost a statement about the Jews, as they’ve become so hardened in body and psyche by the terrifying nature of this brutal war that the Nazis – in this case having people infected with lice working in these places – would rather let them be than to possibly infect themselves. In addition, there’s an absurdist element at play. The fact Michal, as well as others, are driven to working in such places all to avoid the Nazis – who, yes, would bring upon them a worse fate – is a Kafkaesque body horror. With an ending such as this, it’s hard to pinpoint any one aspect the director was trying to get at. All the same, these are my best explanations. To my mind it works well with the plot.
Cinematographer Witold Sobociński is fascinating. His work here is one of the only two films I know/have seen of his, which includes Roman Polanski’s 1988 film Frantic. In this film, Żuławski has him going hard on the handheld cinematography. Which is great because Sobociński is steady. Not just that some of the angles and techniques they use works well with his adeptness for handheld camerawork, including unexpected, fresh shots that leap off the screen and grab us. Also, a heavy blue filter casts everything in a doom-and-gloom perspective throughout the film’s entirety. Added to that is the general style of Żuławski, one you can see throughout most his work; notably in another great bit of horrifying cinema he provided us with via Possession. There’s an unbalanced feel to things, but not because of any amateur efforts. Merely Żuławski likes to keep the mental state of his viewer questioning things constantly, trying to see what’s behind the imagery. Above anything else, Żuławski’s style is dizzying and raw in that even the surreal moments are incredibly honest. We’re brought into his film and story through the visceral qualities of its atmosphere and the overall look/tone. There’s this wild feeling whenever blood appears onscreen, as the camera takes us flitting around the scenes, almost how one might if they were squeamish. The camera sees blood and quickly it disorients the audience, reacting much like a human being.
Aside from the look, the sounds of this movie help its atmosphere a great deal. The music is haunting, often giving off the air of ominous things to come. Other times it’s a little grating and heaps itself onto the viewer without hesitation.
Arguably one of the greatest feature film debuts by an director, ever, The Third Part of the Night introduces many of the directorial sensibilities Andrzej Żuławski would go on to make a core part of his personal style, epitomized thoroughly and in even more fully realized form in his films Possession and The Public Woman a decade later. While I’ve given my own personal interpretation of the film, its horror and the surrealism elements, part of Żuławski’s experience here is meant as disorienting. Just like Michal the audience is thrown down the rabbit hole. After that initial event with his family being slaughtered, his mind gradually melts, and the effects of war drive him into a spiral. So though many of us will try and impose our meaning on this piece of cinema it is also inherently undefinable.
And that’s part of this movie’s trouble, as so many try to pinpoint on exact thorough plot with little explanations for every last thing along the way. That’s just not what this work of art is about. It evokes a strong feeling in the viewer, watching an unemotional, unsentimental picture about WWII and the Holocaust that foregoes the telling of heroic/against-all-odds stories in lieu of something absurd, existentially horrific, and at times borderline psychedelic. Żuławski is an important filmmaker whose work ought never to be passed over with a glance. This man and his films deserve close attention.