Andrzej Zulawski’s debut feature, released to a nationwide response of shock and awe in early 1972, seemed like an ominous comet zapping through the gray sky of Polish cinema. Based on the WWII experiences of its director’s father, beefed up with a hearty dose of apocalyptic visions, and sprinkled all over with casual hysteria, The Third Part of the Night was something new under the sun and moon alike.
There’s a great found metaphor at the center of the film’s queasy impact. Zulawski’s father, along with scores of Polish intellectuals, survived in Nazi-occupied Lviv by feeding blood to typhoid-infested lice at the local Weigl institute, engaged in full-time production of vaccines for the German army. Side effects included prolonged feverish fits, which made the surrounding occupation feel like a nightmarish blur. Mirosław Zulawski, highly active in the resistance movement, described his experiences in a short story, which his son then embellished with a cornucopia of bibilical symbols and signature obsessions all his own—of which the doppelganger motif is only the most pronounced.
The elaborately fractured, if ultimately circular, story focuses on Michał (Leszek Teleszyński), a young law graduate heir of the local landed gentry, who loses his wife and daughter during a German invasion. Bereaved and numb, he becomes a resistance fighter and keeps feeding his blood to hungry lice at the institute, usually while riffing with his pals on the futility of literature faced with atrocities of war. When another man is mistakenly shot by the Germans instead of Micha?, the latter assumes care of the man’s wife (played by the same Małgorzata Braunek who appeared earlier as Micha?’s actual spouse, and was married to the director at the time). The sensation of reliving a scenario once played out grows stronger once the woman gives birth to child, and thus the readymade replacement-family is ready for Micha? to both embrace and inhabit.
As feverish as the sub-typhoid state the main character is constantly exposed to, The Third Part of the Night relies on vertiginous handheld camera movement, wildly eccentric tracking shots, and Andrzej Korzyński’s electric-guitar score bursting every now and then with a metronome-like precision. The centerpiece is a series of visceral sequences of microscopic exactitude, in which whirling lice and their human fodder become part of a single equation, depending on one another for survival. The scenes of the (literal) feeding frenzy, with dozens of wooden lice-filled boxes strapped to the characters’ legs, have a surreal quality all the stronger for their near-documentary value (one of the boxes used by Mirosław to this day adorns Andrzej’s real-life writing desk).
At the time of the film’s original release, its scene-by-scene weirdness was at least as discomfiting as its historical vision was daring. It was clear for Polish viewers that the anti-German resistance Zulawski is portraying isn’t the communist underground, incongruously hailed by the official state propaganda, but rather the war’s actual heroes: the anti-communist Home Army who fought for a very different Poland than the one Stalin succeeded in creating. By imagining the war as an actual apocalypse, narrated with bits of the Book of Revelation and sporting the devil-defying archangel Michael’s namesake at its center, Zulawski created a singular vision of history’s horror show.
For all its trippy touches, this vision isn’t facetious in the least; it has real gravitas, rooted in the director’s childhood memories of witnessing German executions, as well as his baby sister’s starvation. With part of the family having perished in Auschwitz, and another in the gulags of Kazakhstan, Zulawski’s memory was scarred deeply enough to produce this feverish dream of a movie, in which all values wither, and yet humanity is propelled to move forward—even as it loses blood in the process.
BAMcinématek’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski” runs from March 7—20. For more information, click here.