Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Third Part of the Night (1971)

by on February 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed March 7 at 7:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

Fresh on the heels of the glowing reception to Polish polarizer Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession last year at Film Forum, BAM offers a chance to go deeper with “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski“. Unfortunately, the director had to cancel his scheduled appearances due to health reasons, but there are still plenty of enticing rarities to be enjoyed – including a new 35mm of this, his debut feature, to kick off the series.

No better introduction than Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson, for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2003):

In cultural terms, nobody becomes the haloed object of our fascination and devotion more quickly or surely than the artist-outlaw, he for whom aesthetic conventions are merely scrap meat for chop pie, and for whom transcendent vindication as a presence in the human throng is found in the all-or-nothing Fuck You, regardless of the penalties. Much of the fervent ardor of cinephiles is reserved for those who defy the orthodoxies of the world’s costliest and most cumbersome medium. Everyone will invoke their favorite martyr, but before them all I will pit Andrzej Zulawski. Few other filmmakers have maintained a voice, come hell or high water, as divisive, anarchic, and ludicrously overwrought. Saying Zulawski is an acquired taste is handling him with tongs; a filmgoer either has the flesh-in-the– teeth lust for his emotional, visual, and narrative pandemonium-or they do not. Naturally, Zulawski boosters are few but fierce; if an argument can be made for him, it would necessarily be in the form of a bludgeoning harangue. If he has a world cinema profile it is as a film festival scourge beloved for his violations. In the U.S., he is all but entirely unknown.
Zulawski debuted in 1971 with The Third Part of the Night, 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. In the first scene, the family of the tortured hero (Leszek Teleszynski) is butchered by the Gestapo, and from there the film’s a nonstop bolt through a clammy dys-Europa. In fact, the movie’s context is so abstracted and soaked with queasiness, so crowded with doppelgangers, raving lunacy, sudden corpses, secret signals, and intimations of plague, that the upshot is baldly Kafkaesque. Finally, the Resistance-bound hero becomes a startlingly horrible variety of collaborator, joining a lab-coated assembly line of self-vampirizing workers who systemically inject their own blood into the bowels of monstrous lice. If you’re going to make a mark on Euro-cinema, then or now, this is one way to do it.



The Cinefamily program notes:

Emerging right out of the gate with a debut as emotionally potent and stylistically inventive as any of his dazzling later works, Andrzej Zulawski’s masterful fever dream The Third Part of the Night is a elliptical wonder on par with the most mind-stretching intellectual Moebius strips of Tarkovsky and David Lynch. Based on the real-life experiences of Zulawski’s father during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the film follows a fugitive who, after witnessing the murder of his wife and child, is hurled into a life that literally is not his own. Littered with trapdoors, doubles, and wormholes, Zulawski creates a cinematic world on the verge of collapse, where doppelgangers and dread abound alongside the true untold story of a Nazi vaccine laboratory, where Jews and members of the resistance were “employed” as feeders for parasites infected with typhus (thus protecting them from persecution.) It’s a history that’s mind-bogglingly fascinating on its own; in Zulawski’s hands, it’s one of the most unique war films ever created.


Time Out Film Guide:

World War II Poland: a man gets a second chance. Michal’s wife and child are killed by German soldiers, but in a nearby town he discovers and stays with a woman in labour who looks just like his dead wife. A complex and surreal work, the film is obsessed with the distinctions between love as self-preservation and self-sacrifice. But it’s just as much the hallucinations of a dying man. Images of death are everywhere: endless corridors, figures framed in doorways (and later in coffins), a couple gunned down in bed. Not an easy film to come to terms with because of its cerebral nature and its self-consciousness; a haunting first feature, all the same.


Alex Cox, also for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2008):

Darkness Falls Any viewer hoping for an action-filled story of Polish partisans fighting the Nazis should look elsewhere. Andrzej Zulawski’s The Third Part of the Night (71) is that, in theory. But in practice it’s as aloof and distant from the war genre as Melville’s Le Samourai is from the traditional policier.

The Third Part of the Night is loosely based on the experience of Zulawski’s father-a partisan during World War II. Film directors are often self-aggrandizing, but this movie’s in a league of its own. Its centerpiece is a scene in which a character, played by Malgorzata Braunek-who also happens to be the director’s mother-gives birth. It’s a long, drawn-out erotic scene, which ends (presumably) with the birth of the director himself! As auteurist self-indulgence it equals the zeal of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which ends with the director telling us, “This is just a film. These characters are actors. I am the director.” This, plus voiceover quotes from the Book of Revelation, and a scene in which the hero finds his doppelganger dead beneath a shroud, threaten to relegate The Third Part of the Night to film-school hell. But it’s saved by magnificent camerawork, and by its intricate staging. Zulawski was a Peckinpah fan but choreographs his action scenes abruptly and obliquely-part of a constant stream of moving shots in which violence appears and disappears, adding to the bigger picture.

The scenes in which Zulawski père and his fellow urban intellectuals give blood to leeches in return for food stamps anticipate Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. When the film first played outside Poland, it was acclaimed for its surrealism. But what the critics took for Bunuelian absurdities were grounded in fact: a grotesque but pragmatic clinic actually existed, where leeches fed off volunteers’ blood as part of the process of manufacturing typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Zulawski wrote the screenplay with his father. They could have made a fine partisan thriller. But, drawn by other concerns, they made The Third Part of the Night.



David Cairns for MUBI:

Andrzej Zulawski swings his camera like a steel fist. Indeed, right at the start of his first feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), after a soldier on horse back has ridden right into the living room of a country house, the camera lens briefly assumes the POV of a rifle butt crashing down onto the leading lady’s temple, with such violence that I wonder how he avoided actually braining her. This full-on approach – seeking to escape the dreaded academicism he saw in cinema all around him, Zulawski went hand-held whenever possible, and deployed the lens not as an eye but as the probing hand of a surgeon – is balanced and maybe unbalanced by the writer-director’s eager embrace of confusion and ambiguity in the narrative.


Zulawski’s war feels like it will never end, which makes sense if one considers the position of Poland when he made the film, still under the thumb of an invading power. Like Paul Verhoeven’s protagonists in Soldier of Orange and Black Book, Zulawski’s resistance never seems to achieve anything, and the one mission depicted is an utterly botched rescue attempt to save Grizzly’s lookalike, a man whom everyone agrees has no strategic importance whatsoever. Deriving his title from the biblical apocalypse, he creates a powerful sensation of nightmare, with spatial dislocation (long hand-held camera chases that make progressively less sense), psychological disintegration and performances peaking towards sheer hysteria.
The music is a combination of trembling xylophonic tiptoeing (recalling Melville again) orchestral insect menace, and anachronistic blasts of fuzz guitar. The colours tend to slate-blue (Melville yet again), and the dervish-like camera work adds drunken fervour to the already hyped-up performances. Everything stands on a knife-edge between absurdity and the abyss. Rarely has a filmmaker begin his career by so boldly charting out the territory he intends to explore.



Daniel Bird in a booklet accompanying the Second Run DVD release:

The Third Part of the Night opens with a reading from The Book of Revelations over a succession of landscape shots of earth, trees and grass. The title, drawn from The Seventh Seal , alerts us to Żuławski’s metaphysical intentions this will not be like any other Polish war film . After the credits, we are introduced Michal, his wife Helena and their son, Lukasz. Not long after, both Helena and Lukasz are slaughtered by German soldiers on horseback. It s a brutal, disturbing scene full of incongruous imagery, such as the horse mounted soldiers riding inside the manor house. Helena greets one soldier with a trance like stare that appears to provoke the massacre. She stumbles outside her skin white, the blood on her face bright red only to be gunned down in front of Michal. The original Polish press book for The Third Part of the Nighty interspersed solarised stills from the film with details from Durer’s Apocalypse. This sequence, along with the four angels (distorted through glass in the final shot of the film) explicitly correlates the Polish experience with biblical imagery with a confidence only paralleled by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962).
A strong sense of style can be discerned in The Third Part of the Night: long tracking shots; predominant wide-angle compositions, usually from below looking up (ceilings and the heavens are always in frame); two people locked in dialogue are rarely covered by the usual tete-a-tete back and forth between facial close-ups, as Żuławski favours dynamic mid-shots capturing both speakers, profile shots that turn into portraits, or the simple twisting of the focus ring, making sharp one of two speakers adjacent to the camera. Unlike Miklos Jansco, there is never a sense that Żuławski is adhering to a formal strategy , nor has this ‘style’ become an affectation (yet), as it could be argued to be the case in Tarkovsky’s later films. Rather, The Third Part of the Night is both simple and slick, possessing the formal qualities of an auteur film as well as the glossiness of a Hollywood flick.


Jeremiah Kipp talks to Bird about Zulawski’s ouevre, for The House Next Door.


The film’s star Malgorzata Braunek on working with the director (re-printed by Second Run DVD):

What was it like to shoot the film? At first we just talked about it, about the characters, working out their psychological traits. There weren’t rehearsals, but before each take we would discuss in detail how the scene should be played. The question Andrzej often asked was, ‘What would such and such person do in this situation?’ He never demonstrated the way an actor should play a role, emphasising instead the emotions rooted deep within the character and drawing out of us the appropriate mental state. He would work as long as it took to achieve what he wanted. There are actors who like it when a director shows them what to do. However, Andrzej believes – as I do – that if you keep repeating the same scene automatically you are not an actor.
Through working with him one discovers a certain depth to a character, below which there are even deeper levels. His films aim to comprehend the nature of evil, to explore the pain hidden within ourselves. Andrzej knows, both from an intellectual and psychological point of view, what is hidden beneath the characters’ surface. Collaborating with him involves the perpetual discovery of new things. I believe that my double-role in Third Part of the Night brought about a change in my personality, which contributed to my creative development. When an actor is entrusted with a role so complex, emotionally intense and psychologically rich, there is the realisation that he will be able to give his all in the films that follow.


Director Andrzej Wajda (also re-printed by Second Run DVD):

My crew was involved in Andrzej’s feature-length debut, The Third Part of the Night and they succumbed to the charm of this young director, entrusting themselves to him completely. Andrzej’s film was a far cry from the way the occupation was portrayed in our films. We saw the war with our own eyes, he could only see them with the eyes of his soul, to paraphrase Hamlet. The different approach was unavoidable. I remember how shocked I was by this movie and how I took to it at the same time. It was certainly a new and an original voice in our Polish cinema.



Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

What’s most striking about The Third Part of the Night is how, in his very first film, Zulawski’s themes and aesthetics are already full-formed. The film is literally swept along by the swirl of main character Michal’s emotional state in an ever-changing flamboyance of camera technique. It’s a subjective vision, where the lines between reality, memory, fantasy, and dream become increasingly blurred. It also proposes a world whose historical setting – Poland under Nazi occupation – is transformed into a spiritual vision of suffering, redemption, and an impending apocalypse.


The blog Lights in the Dusk (to which we owe most of the lovely stills accompanying this post):

It is a film as a work of layered interpretations; where images of doorways and staircases that represents the movement from one shifting reality to another, takes dominance over the mise-en-scene. The sense, of moving between words, memories and realities abstracts the drama even further, creating a bleak kaleidoscope of images and ideas similar in execution to the climax of Takashi Miike’s masterpiece Audition (Ôdishon, 1999). As the film progresses, the tenuous hold that Michal has on reality becomes strained, and he is drawn, almost supernaturally, through layers of reflection. As the atmosphere of the third act becomes much more intense, the character is led into a literally hellish underworld; a Dante’s Inferno, where a series of grisly discoveries in a literal hospital of horrors – filled with what author Daniel Bird refers to as “a Grosz-like gallery of the grotesque” and a series of “Francis Bacon-like bodies covered in lice cages in an otherwise darkened cell” – conspire to push the character further into the bowels of the institution, where the secrets of his fate will be revealed.



And they conclude:

However, the answer to the film’s most pertinent question evades both the character and the audience, obscured as it is by conflicting narrative perspectives; reducing the plight of this character to the level of a Rorschach construct, in which the answer to the most significant question of all can be found only as a reflection on the face of death itself. As a result, it will be a difficult film for many viewers, not simply in regards to the atmosphere and the imagery that is created, but in the film’s often confusing disregard for logic and convention; where the whole film, for the most part, seems beyond the realms of easy categorisation, or even critique.

More than anything, it reflects the notion of a cinema of dreams (or nightmares); with the often ugly, ecstatic nature of Żuławski’s direction and the heightened, almost exaggerated performances of his cast creating a tone that lingers long in the imagination. Where the characters ripple and convulse in irregular, epileptic spasms, while those unforgiving, wide-angle lenses are continually pushed right into the faces of the actors in order to capture every uncomfortable moment of pain and despair.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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