This is the second entry in a four part series on director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films — Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the Night, Diabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe — which I recently had the pleasure to see at the Lincoln Center in New York. The series will conclude with an interview with the retrospective’s co-curator, writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird.
Żuławski’s second feature film, The Devil, is set during the invasion of the Prussian army in 1793. Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski of The Third Part of the Night), an alleged traitor, is rescued from a squalid prison by a mysterious, black-clad man (Andrzej Wajda regular Wojciech Pszoniak), in exchange for a list of his collaborators. A nun (Monika Niemczyk) accompanies him on a chaotic journey home, which is marked by political turmoil and the aftermath of a violent battle, and he discovers the complete dissolution of the family he left behind. He is goaded to the brink of insanity by the stranger in black, which leads him to commit acts of horrific, often random violence.
On the surface, The Devil has much in common with Żuławski’s debut, The Third Part of the Night, in the sense that both films are set during historical periods of Germanic occupation and both depict an apocalyptic descent into a hellish terrain. But The Devil is worlds away from The Third Part of the Night’s more subdued, deeply personal sense of dread, and Żuławski himself compared it to the frenetic energy of his later film, L’amour braque (1985). While I would argue that there is nothing quite like The Devil in Żuławski’s catalog, excepting perhaps moments of On the Silver Globe, it does contain many of his central themes: a tormented male protagonist, a tragic if not openly destructive love triangle, hysterical women, moments of jarring violence, and unexpected gallows humor — including one scene literally at a grave side — here in the form of the stranger in black.
If Possession, his most famous film, is a masterful exercise in heartbreak and emotional torment, The Devil is a masterpiece of oppression and anger. Żuławski’s frenzied script is further enhanced by dizzying, restless cinematography from Żuławski’s life-long collaborator, Andrzej Jaroszewicz, which captures the Polish countryside in a largely black and blue color palette. The sense of anxiety is heightened by an anachronistic, prog-influenced soundtrack from Żuławski’s regular composer Andrzej Korzynski.
The Devil was banned in Poland, thanks to its themes of political dissent, and it is easy to read the 19th century setting as a thinly veiled metaphor for contemporary Polish turmoil. The 19th century was a period of intense political competition marked by vigorous wars of succession. The French and American revolutions were countered by absolute monarchies in Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Poland was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a relatively democratic government situated directly in the midst of warring neighbors, and Poland dealt with regular assaults from Sweden, Russia, Austria, France, and Prussia, among others.
These conflicts — along with attempts at government reform that resulted in one of the first constitutional monarchies in European history — led to united attacks from Russia and Prussia. This ultimately resulted in the partitioning of Poland, which began in the 1770s when Russia, Prussia, and Austria claimed they were acting in Poland’s best interests. By the Second Partition of the Commonwealth in 1793, the country was left little more than a Russian protectorate, stripped of territory, citizens, and political and financial independence, a situation that would not change for more than a century.
While this is the backdrop of The Devil, the real threats in the film come from inside Poland, from greed, misplaced patriotism, blackmail, opportunism, and widespread corruption. It’s easy to see this as a direct response to current events in Władysław Gomułka’s communist Polish People’s Republic. Despite a somewhat relaxed early reputation and a series of reforms in the late ‘50s, Gomułka soon cracked down on freedom of expression, particularly tightening his grip on art, media, and academia. Intellectuals bitterly criticized his newfound authoritarianism with acts like a petition known as the “Letter of the 34,” delivered in 1964, and many of the younger, more reform-minded members of the Party were coerced out. Historian and philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, himself forced to emigrate, wrote, “political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life.”
These tribulations of the mid ‘60s, combined with persistent economic decline, led to the infamous events of March 1968, a year marked by primarily student and worker-led unrest in countries like France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and, most dramatically in Czechoslovakia with the Prague Spring. Student protests in Poland began after 19th century Romantic writer Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dizady (1824) was banned by the authorities for being anti-Soviet.
In his Poland Under Communism: A Cold War History, Anthony Kemp-Welch writes, “Mickiewicz’s classical drama Dziady (Forefathers) was put on at Warsaw’s National Theatre to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Although the play had been required reading in Polish schools at least since independence was regained in 1918 and had been performed regularly during the communist period, it is not clear why its subject, Poland’s struggle for freedom under the Russian partition, was thought suitable by the theatrical censorship” (148). The Devil, then, bears something in common with Dziady in the sense that both are concerned with the years of partition and Prussian/Russian dominance. Like other works in the Romantic tradition, Dziady has Gothic sensibilities and mild themes of paganism and the occult, and, like many of Żuławski’s films, is ultimately a tale of tormented love.
General Mieczysław Moczar, Minister of the Interior, used these demonstrations in defense of Dziady as an excuse to begin a largely anti-Semitic, but also anti-intellectual attack which forced thousands to emigrate from the country, seriously depleting a Jewish population that had nearly been wiped out two decades earlier. The protests continued in 1970 and 1971 with events like the Gdańsk shipyard riots, a chaotic scene straight out of The Devil. Kemp-Welch writes, “About 10,000 people went on the rampage. Looting took place, particularly of luxury items such as furs. Symbols of privilege and status, such as cars parked in front of the Hotel Monopol, were set on fire. Twenty militiamen were hospitalized, five with serious injuries. No figures for civilian casualties were recorded. The militia announced 16 arrests ‘for vandalism and petty theft’. This figure was rightly disbelieved. Secret reports to Warsaw reported 330 arrests” (183). It later came to light that in these riots close to 50 people were killed, more than 1,000 were wounded, and more than 3,000 arrested.
It is perhaps no wonder then that with the treatment faced by Dziady and the harsh crack down on censorship, that The Devil was rapidly banned and Żuławski was forced to relocate to France. Censorship was all consuming and nearly anything could become a target. Kołakowski wrote, “We have reached the shameful situation in which the world drama from Aeschylus through Shakespeare to Ionesco, has become a catalogue of allusions to current Poland.” Notably, this is Żuławski’s first use of classical literature within one of his films, something that would reemerge throughout his career. While a theatrical troupe performs Hamlet in The Devil, L’important chest d’aimer involves a staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a central plot piece, Chekov’s The Seagull figures into L’amour braque (itself inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot), and Le femme publique is centered on a filmic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.
Just as Hamlet complains that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and finds his father murdered and his uncle polluting both the throne and marital bed, Jakub also finds his world turned completely upside down, particularly his domestic life. The natural order of things is fundamentally disturbed: his father has committed suicide (though Jakub seems to suspect foul play) after committing incest with Jakub’s sister, a suspicious new half-brother has emerged on the scene, and he learns his mother is not only a prostitute, but an enthusiastic madam. Like Ophelia, Jakub’s love (Żuławski’s then wife Małgorzata Braunek) goes mad; she realizes she has been falsely convinced of Jakub’s death and talked into marrying his best friend, who has impregnated her. And like Hamlet’s alleged friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Jakub’s best friend betrays him in exchange for perceived political power.
Żuławski undoubtedly knew that Hamlet has traditionally been read as a play with strong themes of political dissent. In Shakespeare, Dissent and the Cold War, A. Thomas writes, “the play encodes hidden references to the fate of persecuted Catholics in Elizabethan England. The theme of madness (both real and feigned) corresponds to the official perception of recusants as ‘fools’ who had to be locked away as a dangerous threat to society. Similarly, in Stalin’s Russia, dissidents were often declared insane and were incarcerated in mental asylums.” The prison in the opening of The Devil looks far more like a madhouse and insanity is an obvious theme of the film. I’ve read comparisons between it and the madness and hysteria in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), made just a year before, and though the latter is a favorite of mine, The Devil makes The Devils look like an exercise in coherency and restraint.
Hamlet’s themes of political dissent, surveillance, revenge, and murder — and the central struggle of a young man against a corrupt tyrant — are stretched to their utmost limits. Żuławski implies that madness and the ensuing violence is not only a consequence of war, but also of tyranny. In Kołakowski’s seminal 1971 essay, Theses on Hope and Despair, he wrote, “Despotic forms of government necessarily produce the need for permanent, or at least periodic, aggression. In default of an external war, various forms of internal aggression, aimed at maintaining a constant state of menace and building up the psychosis of a beleaguered fortress — even if this is in favor of the most artificial processes and against the most chimerical enemies — fulfill similar functions.”
The Devil frenetically follows Jakub as he becomes a symbol of this internal aggression. He is reduced to an animalistic state and succumbs to all impulses, even seducing his own mother. Elements of abjection and horror emerge when he becomes a murderer, provoked by the man in black, who frequently drives him to a psychological breaking point and then puts a razor in his hand. Sexually explicit and quite gory, The Devil depicts a country broken out in chaos, where random killings morph into mass slaughter. But this is not merely a straightforward tale of political dissent and casual violence: Żuławski’s use of the absurd and the surreal sometimes bears comparing to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky: Jakub struggles with a midget in livery playing what I think is a Jew’s harp, he is pressured to join a traveling theatrical troupe, has adventures in an old chateau transformed into a brothel, and wanders into an orgy in a ballroom.
Like The Third Part of the Night, this film is perhaps difficult to pin down not only because of its abstruse narrative, but because it rejects all moral absolutes. While Hamlet can perhaps be seen as an anti-hero, Jakub is barely a coherent protagonist and the man in black, possibly the titular “Devil,” is not an obvious villain. Though he is ultimately castrated for his troubles, there is no sense that good has triumphed over evil: the films ends with the implication that the nun will take over his diabolical work.