Friday Editor’s Pick: The Devil (1972)

by on March 9, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri March 16 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

Another rarity (with live subtitle projections care of BAM and the Polish Cultural Institute) in BAM’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” This one got him kicked out of Poland.

Dan Callahan entices in his feature for Alt Screen:

Zulawski’s second feature, The Devil (1972), follows a madman, Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski), on an increasingly bloody walking tour through the Polish countryside after the Prussian invasion of 1793. As an electric guitar wails on the soundtrack, Jakub sternly surveys many scenes of sexual excess, taking a straight razor to the throats of many a hysterical woman. He discovers his father’s dead body while a vindictive dwarf plays a kazoo nearby, and his sister confesses, “I’ve learned to take pleasure in beating,” after getting a bucketful of water flung in her face (the water wets the camera lens as well). The dwarf then throws a handful of dirt into Jakub’s face as he tries to bury his father, and this is followed by Jakub nearly sleeping with his own mother.


“That was an embarrassment of thrills,” says a man at one point in The Devil, carrying his caterwauling blond lover away from a ballroom orgy dominated by misplaced sexual urges and warped patriotism. By the end, it is suggested that The Devil himself is at the bottom of all this trouble, and this Devil is actually castrated on screen. For Zulawski, sexual self-indulgence appears to be at the root of most evil, but the authorities in Poland only saw the licentious surface and not the underlying moralizing, and so The Devil was banned and forced the director to leave his country to find work. It is the film of a conservative and very despairing man who (judging from his movies alone), has serious issues with sex, women and homosexuality.


Michael Atkinson for Film Comment:

A historical phantasia The Devil (72), which the Polish censors sat on for 16 years. As rabid as his first film, The Devil is set during the 1783 Prussian conflict but self-evidently critiques the Polish state’s anti-protest machinations circa 1968; the scenario follows a young anti-royalist (Teleszynski again) as he is manipulated by a mysterious demiurge/government spook into betraying his ideals and slaughtering virtually everyone around him. The film’s tableaux of human suffering and debauchery make the contemporaneous lurid-history maven Ken Russell look like an unimaginative priest. Even when it was finally released in Poland in 1988, The Devil was thoroughgoingly maudit-reportedly, even the Catholic Church attempted to depublicize it.

Michał Oleszczyk for The House Next Door:

The 1972 film that got Andrzej Żuławski kicked out of Poland, remains one of his fiercest, if least accessible, reveries. Overwrought even by its maker’s standards, it dramatizes the late 18th-century partition of Poland as a free-floating nightmare of near-cosmic proportions. Wojciech Pszoniak plays a thinly veiled version of a secret policeman trying to subvert a young idealist’s fervor into an act of pro-regime violence. The overtones of the then-recent political mayhem of May 1968, which saw Polish communist authorities provoking young intellectuals into self-defeating acts of protest, became clearly visible only after the movie was finished and shelved for years. Some inspired programmer has still to come up with the idea of pairing this deadly serious celluloid frenzy with Ken Russell’s The Devils, so that they play together as a midnight double-bill made in…Dante’s inferno?



The Cinefamily program notes:

Hitting an off-the-charts level of subversive allegory, Zulawski’s second feature is a blood-splattered rampage through a war-charred 1790s Poland that turns the historical epic inside out, and dances on its carcass. Immediately banned in the director’s Communist Poland for over a decade and a half, The Devil writhes with nonstop demonic energy as it follows an nobleman who, after escaping from prison, swandives into insanity and mass murder. Returning home to his once-rich family — one now reduced to savages — and manipulated by a black-cloaked Satanic stranger at the center of a web of political treachery, the nobleman eventually enacts a Hamlet-like pyrrhic revenge on just about everyone in sight. But The Devil’s most spectacularly intense violence is all emotional, with near-constant outbursts of grief, and desperation of a seizure-like intensity that is downright mesmerizing. You won’t be able to look away, and with the way Zulawski’s gloriously restless camerawork captures all the detail, you’ll never want to.


Ed Howard admonishes for Only the Cinema:

Andrzej Zulawski’s Diabel (The Devil) is a messy, baroque, jagged film, all sloppily chopped up and ragged, dripping in blood and grime. It is unrepentantly, unceasingly ugly and vile, wallowing in the filth and degradation of a world in which morality and ideals mean little, and in which everyone seems either half-mad or already fallen into the abyss of insanity.
Zulawski conveys the disconnection and dazed state of Jakub effectively through his fragmentary editing, through which the young man often seems to be leaping spasmodically from location to location: one moment he might be in a springtime forest, the next passed out on a snowy hill. This disjunctive editing is effective at adding to the film’s destabilizing feeling, and also lends a supernatural aura to the film’s “devil,” who often seems to appear out of nowhere, always in the right place. The editing winds up being one of the film’s most compelling elements.



Mike D’Angelo for LA Weekly:

The Devil (1972), his next film, begins smack in the middle of what looks like a prison riot, except the prison is a convent. Another opening shot simply follows a young woman as she walks down the street — passing a building in flames along the way, with no explanation offered either then or later. “It’s not like in the movies or in books,” someone comes right out and says in 1985’s L’amour braque, by way of a manifesto, “where everything is precise, thought-out, organized, with a clear-cut goal. Everything’s chaos, chance, pain, disorder.”
The Devil, effectively got him drummed out of Poland. Ostensibly set in 18th-century Prussia, it’s actually a nightmarish allegory for the 1968 uprising of Polish students and intellectuals (in tandem with similar protests in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere), which didn’t escape the government’s notice. They apparently didn’t take kindly to being likened to a sniveling, cowardly demon in human form, who spends the entire film hounding a confused young man, urging him to commit acts of senseless violence against his family, his friends, the woman he loves and society at large. Grimy, fervid, appalling.


Zulawski scholar and collaborator Daniel Bird, interviewed by The House Next Door:

Sometimes an understanding helps the appreciation of these films, but not always. Żuławski’s Diabel makes a lot more sense if you know something about the Warsaw student riots in March 1968. But what attracts me to a particular film is its bizarre quality. I guess you could say such films seem bizarre to a cultural outsider. But then I think the only person in the world who finds Diabel “normal” is Żuławski himself.
When Żuławski talks about “Polish surrealism,” he is right to describe it as a facet of Polish Romanticism. Unlike the Czech Republic, Poland never had a surrealist movement. However, to Western eyes, the films of Borowczyk and Svankmajer both strike us “surreal.” French critics, for example, see Borowczyk as a latter day surrealist, because of his friendship and collaboration with Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, for example. Borowczyk was certainly both aware and sympathetic towards French surrealism, but I would argue that the bizarre quality of his films is rooted in Polish Romanticism. Similarly, Diabel is deeply embedded in the Polish Romantic tradition, but in the West it seems an almost self-consciously surrealist film. For example, when I first saw Diabel in 1997, I remember thinking of it as the “Polish El Topo.”


Jeremiah Kipp for Slant:

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. Żuławski 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.
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. Żuławski, 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 Żuławski 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. 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 Żuławski 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.


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