The Third Part of the Night Review

The Film

Like a lot of cult movie fans my first exposure to the work of Andrzej Zulawski came in the shape of his marvellous Possession. It is a film which mixes genius with the obscene and the metaphorical with the real, a truly distinctive apocalyptic film about heartbreak. His debut movie contains some of those qualities again, only this time the degree of biography in the drama is more pronounced as the story is drawn from his father's memories of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Whilst remaining fairly faithful to his father's original story, Zulawksi enjoys the parallels between the Nazi occupation and the position of Communist Poland in 1971 with its own censorship and oppression. He takes the almost unbelieveable stories of his father about Nazi Poland and uses some of these ideas as metaphors for the present. The Third Part of the Night is as passionate as Possession and as connected to the personal as that film but the explicit political dimension also makes it a more idealistic and biting statement. The film starts with a man, Michal, recuperating from illness in the countryside with his family. Returning from a walk in the woods, he sees four horsemen attacking his wife and child and is powerless to stop their killing. He returns to the city where he becomes part of the underground and is ambushed by the Gestapo. Wounded, he runs through a tenement building chased by the secret police who mistake another man for him and arrest him instead. The man's wife turns out to be heavily pregnant and demands help with her labour from Michal which he gives because of his guilt for her husband's arrest and the fact that she looks like his dead wife. He continues to visit her in the nunnery and earns money as a guinea pig in SS disease experiments, finally he seeks to free the man arrested in his place. This tale operates on the basic narrative level I have just explained but also as a film about guilt and oppression, and in Zulawski's pure intent as an attempt to recover the past from the prevalent Communist re-writing of post world war two Poland.

The film shows artists and members of the underground becoming part of bizarre experiments involving lice feeding off their blood, experiments to find anti-viruses by infecting members of the population. These experiments paid well and were often the only work that dissidents could get and consequently, in real life, these experiments became a meeting place for the Polish underground. Zulawski takes this real life fact and uses it for symbolic effect with the dissidents losing their spirits because they are eaten up by the lice, and the obvious metaphor of parasitism for occupation of Poland. Zulawski also makes play of his ideas of doppelgangers in the drama representing ideas or parts of a symbolic whole, as he would again in Possession. Using the vehicle of a war movie, specifically the underground genre or war films, Zulawski shows the evil of lives destroyed by control through ideas and force. He was subtle enough in doing this that the film did not get banned in Poland despite the obvious metaphorical equation of both Nazi and Soviet control, or perhaps the censors were just not bright enough to know what he was getting at.

The Third Part of the Night is powerful with the kind of intense performance that only Zulawski can get from actors. Their playing of their roles is so large and dynamic that it both emphasises their pain and experience as well as lifting the emotions to universal and symbolic levels. Similarly the use of flashbacks allows the straight narrative to be interrupted and ideas explored before returning to the story, a particularly brilliant example of this is the scene following the childbirth where Michal drifts off into memories about his own child and the motif of two parts of the same male whole is established for the rest of the film. The film resolves itself by bringing the fighter and the husband back together and achieving forgiveness for letting the original slaughter happen. Like his films to follow it, you more or less have to surrender yourself to Third Part of the Night to enjoy it and appreciate it. It is a compelling vision from a very particular point of view, it is cussed and at times dense but remarkable for a first film.

Zulawski's debut will not appeal to everyone. The violence in it is disturbing and the childbirth sequence is graphic, but even for the non-squeamish it is a film that won't settle for less than 100% of your attention or allow you to be too safely detached from it. This is the strength of Zulawski's work, that it is intelligent and brilliant but possesses a tremendous visceral power that affects your gut as much as your heart. This is an intriguing film which acts as a document to a particular time but the experience is one which will interest through the ages.

The Disc

Second Run's dual layer disc deserves praise. Not only is it a budget cost, but the quality of the transfer is rather good and the extras of a booklet and an interview are well worth owning. The transfer is not anamorphic and has space at the sides of the frame, but it is close to the OAR, and from a fine print of the film which betrays some damage, marks and flashes. As a whole the transfer is lovely with confident handling of colours which leaves hues constant and skintones especially true, the film is quite dark and moody but the contrast manages this without lacking brightness or definition of shades. The audio track has been restored and is original mono but it does still have signs of wear and tear like background noise and some distortion in the voices. The removable English subtitles are well translated and easily read. Second Run deserve credit for this fine treatment of the main feature.

For those people who remember the director's curmudgeonly performance on the commentary track for the Possession disc, the interview here will come as a surprise as Zulawski is on his best behaviour bar a few rhetorical quibbles with Daniel Bird's questions. He describes how he started in cinema, the helping hand he had off Polanski, the tutelage he enjoyed under Andrzej Wajda and the basis of this film from his father's script. Zulawski admits to being a "difficult character" and muses on how the authorities missed the implied criticism of the film and allowed it to be released. Bird takes a good path with Zulawski by just letting him talk and asking quite open questions. Bird is similarly impressive with his essay included in the booklet that comes with the disc, where he discusses the genesis of the film and wrestles with descriptions of Zulawski's cinema such as "metaphysical" and points out the thematic links with Possession - doppelgangers, apocalypses and staircases. Bird's piece is well written and made me want to check out his previous work on Polanski and his forthcoming book on Wajda.


A striking and original piece of cinema gets a fine DVD release. If you liked Possession for its imagery and visceral impact then you won't be disappointed by this film or indeed this presentation.

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