At the climax of Harold Pinter’s vaguely allegorical but wholly chilling play The Birthday Party, the broken hero is being taken away by strangers, no doubt to a bad place. The locals, who have no idea what sort of political act of terror is being committed, stand by helplessly, but one of them rises and says, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Even though Pinter never makes a specific point of reference as to what deplorable regime is imposing its will, the viewer intuitively understands the message. So it is with Andrzej Zulawski’s The Devil. International audiences unfamiliar with Polish politics might not know or care that his horror film was based on actual events from the turbulent 1960s, during which communist authorities provoked a group of Warsaw students into staging anti-censorship protests. This gave the powers that be an easy excuse to crack down on dissidents, leading to mass arrests and, in the process, striking a blow for free speech. Zulawski used this incident as the basis for his film, hiding it in costumes and throwing in a monster, but he doesn’t depend on viewer familiarity with a specific incident; instead he paints a world of fear, oppression, and suppressed outrage that could happen anywhere, anytime.
When Zulawski filmed The Devil, he told the Polish authorities he was making a period film set in the 18th-century, when the Prussians were invading Poland and killing everyone wholesale. The film opens during a hysterical prison break where a shell-shocked, brooding young man named Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski) is led away from captivity by a grinning, vaguely satanic man in black (Wojciech Pszoniak). Everyone around them is shrieking in hysteria, frantically trying to escape or wish themselves elsewhere, and moments later soldiers appear blasting everyone in sight with their muskets. Jakub and his strange benefactor take flight across a bleak, war-torn winter landscape with a hostage nun (Malgorzata Braunek), encountering madmen, theater troupes, and nymphomaniacs along the way. Of course, the authorities watched The Devil, realized exactly what Zulawski was up to, and promptly banned the film for 17 years.
Whether taken as a historical drama or a horror film, The Devil is unabashedly a parable about misappropriated anger against the forces of evil. Jakub is led home by his dark-clad benefactor, only to discover that everything has taken a turn toward the rancid and horrible. His father has committed suicide, his mother has transformed into a prostitute, his sister has been driven insane, and his fiancée has been forced into an arranged marriage with his best friend, who has turned into a political opportunist and turncoat. Leading him through this world turned upside down is the man in black, who continually whispers sarcastic platitudes in the hero’s ear and inciting him to acts of extreme violence. Zulawski, whose films reach unparalleled heights of vitriolic insanity, stages elaborate sequences with Jakub either throwing himself into fits of rage or sinking into narcoleptic despair, and the man in black—the true devil of the movie, who even transforms into a literal werewolf at one point—ruthlessly egging him on toward oblivion.
Imagine Network’s Howard Beale, pumped up on amphetamines and two tons of cocaine, and wielding a straight razor when he proclaims, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” That’s the height of misappropriated righteous anger Zulawski pitches his film at, and as Jakub slaughters at least a dozen or more people in the final third of the movie, one sees just how far a human being can be pushed or manipulated in the name of duty and honor. It’s appropriately repulsive and uncomfortable, and for an American audience a good reminder of how often we revel in the cinematic glory of macho “good guys” killing “bad guys” as the solution to life’s complex problems. What’s especially sad is that this attitude, reflected in the movies, is all too often the black-and-white solution proposed by the powers that be in, say, Vietnam and Iraq, and one that results in perpetuating even more unaccountable horror. As Charles Mee wrote in his play The Trojan Women 2.0, “Why is it [that] at the end of war the victors can imagine nothing better than to remake the conditions that are the cause of war?”
Zulawski, like Roman Polanski, was born into a world of bombs dropping overhead, and he was one of the few children in his family to survive WWII. No doubt, it’s easy for him to re-imagine the contemporary world as a place of shifting allegiances and untrustworthy moral platitudes. As usual for his films, the camera hurtles vertically across rooms and fields and spirals around as the actors pitch their performances at maximum volume. Society for Zulawski is just a thin veneer used to disguise the horrible sadism and unhappiness lurking inside every human heart. The Devil would make for maudlin, depressing viewing if every scene didn’t feel like explosions were being set off, sending the inmates of a madhouse free into the streets outside.