Monday 24 June 2019

On a Thousand Walls #20: The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia czesc nocy) (1971)

Andrzej Zuławski's Possession is, as you probably know if you've read this blog a bit, my favourite horror film. It's the film that keeps on giving, a stack of metaphors for trauma, and disintegration, and the occupation of physical places and human hearts. Inevitably I was going to get to more of Zuławski's films: Possession is a gateway drug for a lot of people, especially since the restored blu-ray came out a few years ago, and a lot has been written about it. Obviously genre fans stop with Possession, since it's Zuławski's only horror film (and similarly, the not-quite-but-sort-of-finished On the Silver Globe his only sci-fi film) and that's sort of missing the point, because Zuławski, although a filmmaker with some serious problems, is always quite directly honest in the films. I don't think I would have liked him personally one bit, but I have a fierce admiration for the way he discloses himself in his films, and the way he returns to them.

A case in point is his first film, The Third Part of the Night. The more you see of Zuławski's films, the more it feels like they're a set of interlocking puzzle boxes, each of which contains the means to unlock another, and when you watch this fiercely personal film, you can see how Possession is a comment on it, an expansion, even in some ways a rebuke.

It's useful to see how the films parallel.

In Possession, Sam Neill's character, Marc, works as a secret agent in Cold War Berlin. He is flawed and selfish but physically courageous. His wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is unfaithful; there is another man, an intellectual, but also an inchoate alien thing that eventually grows into a doppelgänger of Marc. Anna and Marc have a young son, Bob; we can see, indirectly, the traumatic effects of the collapse of Marc and Anna's marriage on the child. Marc meets another woman, Helen, a doppelgänger of Anna, and they conduct a tentative relationship, haunted by the continuing presence of Anna at the margins. While Anna is ambiguous and difficult, Helen is angelic and idealised. Towards the end of the film, the vague faceless agencies against which Marc works catch up with him; Marc and Anna are gunned down in a showdown on a spiral staircase. Throughout the film, frequent, often blasphemous, references are made to God. The narrative often fractures, and these fractures centre around the person of Anna.

In The Third Part of the Night, Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) works as a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Poland. He is flawed, selfish and a physical coward. He has a partner, Helena (Małgorzata Braunek), who left her husband, an intellectual (who had a psychotic break brought on by his work, of which more later) for Michal, and who with Michal has a young son, Lukasz. In the prologue, the Nazis murder Helena and the boy; Michal escapes to Lwow. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a showdown on a spiral staircase; Michal takes a bullet but escapes capture when the Nazis arrest (and maybe murder, although it is not clear) a man who resembles him. The man's wife, Marta, is Helena's doppelgänger. While Helena is by no means idealised, Marta is ambiguous, difficult. Heavily pregnant and at full term, she goes into labour and Michal delivers the baby, beginning a halting, tentative relationship with her, haunted by the spectre of Helena. Shortly before (or perhaps shortly after) his death, Michal discovers in the hospital where Marta's husband should be his own doppelgänger, dead on a gurney. Throughout the film, frequent, often blasphemous, references are made to God. The narrative often fractures, and these fractures centre around the person of Helena.
In the interview with Zuławski that accompanies the Second Run DVD release of The Third Part of the Night, Zuławski, asked about casting, says only that he cast a "beautiful young actress" as Marta/Helena. He doesn't name her. I suppose that's not a surprise. Małgorzata Braunek would become Zuławski's wife. They'd have a son, and they had a horrendous break up, which informed the horrendous breakup in Possession. Without prying further into painful private lives, and just looking at these films as artefacts, it's still not hard to see how Possession, although its own thing, exists in conversation with the earlier work and in its context, and whether that's as sequel, response or corrective is something that could be argued persuasively any of those ways really.

Certainly, the wrong way to read The Third Part of the Night is as a deliberate beginning of something, because it isn’t. It can only be a beginning in hindsight. The Third Part of the Night is not a film about beginnings. It is very much a film presented, like Possession, as an urban apocalypse. It begins, in fact, with Helena reading from Revelation 8: 8-12, which in the King James version ends like this:
And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
So the third part of the night, then, is the part of the night where there is no light. It is the point where there is no hope, where even the dark admits no light. It is the point of no return. The occupation of your home space by a hostile, implacable force is a thing that leaches into every part of your life, the constant awareness that there is a presence on street corners, that the shape of your home is not what it was.

The geography of your home town changes, subtly, in your mind; you take alternative, roundabout routes to places, go to areas you might otherwise have not in order to get to your destination (and for many women and members of minorities, this is a day to day experience, because in some ways, the majority is an occupying force too).

Michal's Lwow (although it's actually filmed in Krakow), is like this: it's a place of tunnels and alleys, staircases and narrow lanes. When we see main thoroughfares and high streets, we see them almost exclusively from the viewpoint of a side street, peeking out. The Nazis are never humanised in the film (and have no reason to be). They do not speak, barely even have faces. The only Nazi we see close up is the one who strikes Helena with the butt of his rifle, and his face is a mask of hostile disgust. They're not visible for the majority of the film, but they are a constant presence, and at the end they are a vehicle for the collapse of the narrative, as all logical sense departs.

The Nazis provide the fracture of history, they break history apart, and the irresolution brought about by their madness and violence admits hauntings, primarily the haunting of Michal by his wife and son, and it doesn't matter at all whether they are ghosts in the sense of the spirits of the departed, or ghosts in the sense of Michal's grief, guilt and regret.

The Nazis, too, infect the story in another, more stomach-churning way.
The first treatment of the script for The Third Part of the Night was written by Andrzej Zuławski's father Miroslaw, who was a resistance fighter in the second World War. Miroslaw Zuławski, as a writer, was targeted by the Nazis for the camps, but evaded this, because he was one of a number of intellectuals and scientists, many of the Jewish, who took refuge in the Rudolf Weigl institute, in Lwow (then in Poland, later in the Soviet Union, now in Ukraine) where they were paid to "feed lice". That is, they'd sit for hours with tiny cages strapped to their legs, these cages containing lice. The lice were then infected with typhus, killed and harvested for the blood, and the blood was then used to make typhus vaccine for the occupying Wehrmacht. If you took this job, the money was good, but more importantly, the fact that you were a carrier of the disease for medical research was on your papers and ration cards. The Nazis wouldn't touch you, as a result. They certainly didn't want to go anywhere near you, and also, the vaccines were necessary. But because of this, it was a relatively safe place for resistance fighters to congregate.

(Footnote: Weigl would later be recognised by Yad Vashem as "righteous among the nations"; although his vaccine was intended for the Nazis, Weigl made sure that shipments of it made their way to the Warsaw ghetto.)

Miroslaw's experience of sitting for hours getting steadily sicker surrounded by semi-delirious resistance fighters is represented by Michael's in the film. Here the sense of attrition, of being sickened, and having your blood sucked by an ever present, faceless presence parallels the sense of being pushed into a labyrinthine existence by occupiers. In The Third Part of the Night, Nazis are lice. And the lice give Michal the context in which he lives out his story: it's the delirium of the lice that drove Helena's husband mad; it's the job feeding lice that allows him to continue to try to help Marta and her baby. And the other lice, the Nazis, force him to leave his home, and grieve for his family, and take the job feeding lice.

I appreciate I haven't given a particularly solid sense of the shape of this film; and that's partly because it's a difficult film to get the shape of. It's characters and the actions they undertake are symbols as much as they are characters and story tropes. The ambivalent relationship between Michal and his musician father (Jerzy Golinski) serves as a sort of chorus, supplying backstory and separating sections of the narrative, but Michal's father's fate – he commits suicide by arson, burning his music manuscripts – adds to the sense of an apocalypse, an apocalypse of trust, of relationship, of geography and of story, especially since it's Michal's father who is the one who prays to a God who he describes as hateful, cruel, unloving and merciless. Helena's husband has a smaller part, but his miserable fate too reflects the thesis of the film that in a world occupied, there is no light.  

Zuławski's portrayal of the Nazis as faceless unpeople, while especially compelling and on the nose in 2019, in fact comes from Zuławski's "plague on both your houses" politics (it's hard to be a tankie when you've actually had the tanks roll in on you; no matter where you stand politically, that's going to be a traumatising experience). A "both sides" sort of chap, Zuławski wanted to represent the experience of living under communism just as much, and so the less said about the Gestapo, the less detail they're afforded, the more the film can be a sort of covert, samisdat comment on Soviet occupation.

Whatever, focussing on the Nazis doesn't help the film; the historic moment it portrays is really a comment on the now, both Zuławski's now in 1971 and the now in which we live. And that is another thing it shares with Possession. For, although the tanks are currently silent, we are facing an occupation, an occupation of the geography and of the spirit of our homes. But then, all occupations are occupations of the spirit, aren't they?