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This February — coincidentally just a few days after his passing — the Lincoln Center in New York was home to a celebration of 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. While I already wrote a fond, somewhat sentimental farewell to Żuławski a few weeks ago, I’ll probably never be ready to stop thinking or writing about his legacy. This is the first in a four part series on Żuławski’s early Polish films, which will conclude with an interview with writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird.

Żuławski’s debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, is a depiction of madness and violence set during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Poland. In a rural village, German soldiers murder the immediate family of Michał (Leszek Teleszynski, in his film debut, though he would return for Żuławski’s follow up, The Devil), who survives by hiding in the forest with his father (Jerzy Golinski). He plans to join the Resistance, but he is found out by the Gestapo, who chase him into an apartment building. A pregnant woman (Żuławski’s first wife, Małgorzata Braunek) — who looks exactly like his dead wife — agrees to hide him, while he helps her deliver her baby. He finds a job in a typhus lab, feeding disease-spreading lice with his own blood. He learns that the pregnant woman’s husband, who has been mistaken for him by the Gestapo, has been arrested and tortured. Even though he has fallen in love with the woman, he realizes he must do something to intervene.

On one hand, this eerie, terrifying film is undeniably effective as a parable of wartime violence, invasion, and genocide. On the other hand, WWII narratives became common fare in Eastern European cinema, often used as a stand-in for protests of the equal horrors of Soviet rule. Generally speaking, Soviet WWII-themed films were expected to have a degree of realism mixed with nationalist optimism. The Third Part of the Night is notably anything but and the young Żuławski’s film has more than a little in common with the absurdist literary tradition so entrenched in Eastern European culture. In The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945, Antonin and Mira Liehm write that Żuławski “used expressionism and a wealth of naturalistic detail, stressing the overall atmosphere rather than the plot. His world, where the instinct of self-preservation makes man give his very blood to the lice, has all the attributes of the absurd, as it is known in the Polish literature of Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Mrożek, and Witkiewicz. The story ends with madness and death” (378).

Here the notion of the absurd is taken to its most chaotic end. The film is grotesque body horror in anticipation of the genre, an apocalyptic time warp that introduces the sense of hysteria and disorientation that would reappear in the majority of the director’s films. Marta, the female protagonist, describes their existence as “sinking into a world where all things have become alike.” This is Żuławski’s own brand of absurdism, where he follows few of the genre’s established norms — such as the dizzying use of doubles throughout the film — and replaces comedy and satire with horror and abjection.

Absurdist literature played an important, but unstable role in Polish culture, as the communist government banned certain authors and then later relaxed censorship (at least compared to other Soviet states). Harold B. Segel explained, “The impressive interwar Polish avant-garde exemplified by such writers as Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), who committed suicide in 1939 shortly after the German invasion, and Witold Gombrowicz, who was in South America when hostilities erupted and spent the war years in Argentina, was put under a strict ban by the communists… When the situation changed in the 1960s, younger Polish writers who had grown up in ignorance of this legacy embraced it with the fervor of zealots” (The Columbia Guide to the Literatures of Eastern Europe Since 1945, 17). Żuławski was undeniably influenced by this generation of writers, particularly Gombrowicz; in fact his final film, Cosmos (2015), is an adaptation of one of the latter’s novels.

Like fellow Poles Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowczyk, and Jerzy Skolimowski, Żuławski’s work has more of an international than strictly Polish flavor, perhaps thanks to the fact that all four directors uprooted from Poland in the ‘60s or ‘70s and pursued work in France, England, and the US. Similarly, Gombrowicz happened to take a trip to Argentina in 1939, just before war broke out, so he was stranded in South America for its duration (which likely saved his life). The rejection of traditional Polish culture that informs his work can also be felt in Żuławski’s films and it’s no wonder that his follow up to The Third Part of the Night, The Devil — about the 18th century Prussian invasion of Poland — was banned in his home country.

Like The Devil, which was made the following year, The Third Part of the Night uses the themes of war and invasion primarily as a complex backdrop, which adds a rich sense of atmosphere, emotional chaos, and complex political themes. In Film Comment, Michael Atkinson described the film as, “a wrenching nightmare about the Nazi occupation that is virtually divested of historical markers, instead focusing, in the director’s particular manner, on paranoid panic and Theater of Cruelty catharsis… The movie’s context is so abstracted and soaked with queasiness, so crowded with doppelgängers, raving lunacy, sudden corpses, secret signals, and intimations of plague, that the upshot is baldly Kafkaesque.”

The film also blends themes of biology — lice, typhus, the spread of disease, and attempts at immunization — with apocalyptic themes. The presence of the Book of Revelations looms large, giving the film its title, and the dialogue is peppered with quotes like, “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.”

But this apocalypse is personal, even romantic, rather than spiritual or religious. Like many of Żuławski’s later films, The Third Part of the Night is concerned with the breakdown of a romantic relationship and corrosive nature of a love triangle, as expressed in the nonlinear story of Michał, his wife, Helena, and her double Marta. Michał’s search for redemption becomes an Orphic journey to the underworld with Lwów as a grey, putrid hell full of squirming lice and spurting, infected blood.

The Third Part of the Night was actually inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s own father, Mirosław, who is credited as a co-writer. The film is set in Żuławski’s birthplace, Lwów, now known as Lviv, in Ukraine, but then the site of a large Jewish ghetto. The majority of its inhabitants — some 120,000 people — were transported by the Nazis to the Bełżec death camp or Janowska concentration camp. While several of Żuławski’s relatives are remembered by Yad Vashem for their part in saving Jewish lives during the war, Mirosław represents the plight of many Polish intellectuals: in order to survive, he was forced to work as a lice feeder in the Weigl Institute.

In the film, Michał talks to his father about how to save their world. The older man replies, “The world has crumbled, has got smashed, has vanished.” The Third Part of the Night reflects what many felt in postwar life, particularly in Soviet countries, that the world had never really been set right since those fateful years. Personal, political, and mythic all at once, The Third Part of the Night is an astounding debut film, where Żuławski effectively filmed his own birth, a gory, realistic sequence utterly devoid of hope.

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