On the second night of the festival I did see the third film of the festival, a film I was viewing for the second time in my life on the fifth night of the month in which Guy Fawkes once plotted to explode some Houses. Yes, I chose to view The Third Part of the Night (Andrzej Zulawski, Poland, 1971) on the big screen as opposed to enduring a fireworks display for the twenty-first year in a row. What a decision it proved to be. Zulawski’s surreal, apocalyptic nightmare looked bigger and better and is fast becoming one of my favourite films of all time; this second viewing even helped me to further appreciate some of its subtleties, even leaving me with a desire to watch it for a third time, preferably immediately.
The narrative can and will be explained in a straightforward fashion, when in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. The setting is Nazi-occupied Poland; an unfortunate man named Michal joins the resistance after horse-riding oppressors strike down his wife in a rather vicious home invasion. However, things aren’t entirely what they seem outside of the confines of Michal’s country house, and our wandering loner begins to fight mental deterioration in a desolate, unforgiving landscape. Doppelgangers appear. Lice begin to feed. Religious symbolism is rife. Nothing in this world is real anymore.
One great strength (among many) of Zulawski is his ability to draw great intensity from his actors. To go mad is to laugh hysterically at an unbearable pitch, sweating feverishly whilst wearing the most uncomfortable, deranged smile. Everyone at some point becomes vulnerable, stripped down to their primal emotions such as despair, anxiety and madness, all of it disturbingly convincing. These lost, troubled beings inhabit a destitute terrain, so sparse and yet filled to the brim with dread, as if reality could be turned on its head at any given moment. In fact, this does happen, as we are regularly taken on a psychological rollercoaster ride through the perceptions of Michal as he struggles to come to terms with the world around him. Zulawski’s camera follows his wanderings with impeccable movement, sometimes juddering behind him, at other times flying backwards. It probes and explores the environment to which we, like Michal, are trapped. Zulawski’s world is arguably a unique creation; the only other director I can compare him to with regards to this particular film is Greek filmmaker Nikos Nikolaidis, who presented similar claustrophobic, haunting environments in a number of his films, namely Morning Patrol and Euridice BA 2037. However, Zulawski brings to this a character all of his own, a style of such unsettling nature that the immersion in his world is at once provocatively alluring and utterly frightening.
The screening was presented by the man who runs the fantastic DVD label Second Run, whose name now escapes me. As he spoke, I looked around briefly to see who else was in attendance. There were a few students, but the audience was mostly made up of middle-aged people. It’s disappointing to know so few people are willing to give an underrated filmmaker such as Zulawski a chance; it’s heartbreaking to consider that the younger audience of cinephiles appears to be rapidly dwindling. One can only hope that they are actually watching these films somewhere, even if it’s just on their 12” laptop screens.