‘It’s too late to read Spengler.’
Polish writer-director Andrzej Zulawski remains best-known for his bizarre art-horror hybrid Possession – a film which makes more sense in the context of his developing oeuvre than it does as a standalone, though refusal to make sense is a hallmark of Zulawski’s embittered, distinctively Eastern European Surrealism. Like Possession, The Third Part of the Night is full of intimations of the Apocalypse, from Biblical quotations intoned at the outset and reprised throughout through various violent disruptions and absurd dislocations which happen around the bewildered lead. The setting is Lwow during the Nazi Occupation, but Zulawski keeps swastikas offscreen and perhaps intends jibes at the then-communist government: the first atrocity, in which a mounted thug rides a horse into a well-appointed country house and drives out two well-dressed women and a child to be murdered, draws more on the iconography of Russian Revolution than German invasion, and skirmishes between oppressive outside forces and a homegrown resistance movement seem as applicable to 1971, when the film was made, as the early 1940s.
Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) survives the massacre of his wife, mother and young son and flees to the city, where – considering himself among the living dead — he volunteers to join the Resistance and eventually benefits by landing a peculiar job as a ‘lice-feeder’, allowing ticks to suckle on his legs as part of a program to produce an anti-typhus serum (since lice-feeders need to be healthy, he gets extra rations for this). This business is obviously bizarre in the extreme, but is drawn from fact – the film was co-written by Zulawski’s father Miroslaw, and based in part on the elder Zulawski’s wartime experiences. In a doppelganging theme which would recur in Zulawski (though it runs through similar fictions from Kafka’s The Trial to Losey’s M. Klein), Michal is pursued into a building – only for the Nazis to shoot and arrest a lookalike in a similar overcoat, which leads Michal to an involvement with the man’s wife Marta (Malgorzata Braunek), the exact double of his own dead wife, whom he finds on the point of giving birth (Mom and Dad-style documentary footage is inserted). Later, Marta gets confused about who her protector is, when she isn’t agonised because not turning Michal over to the Gestapo is a betrayal of her real husband, and Michal tries to get a blind Resistance organiser to stage a rescue of the man captured in his stead, which piques the underground man’s sense of the absurd.
In the climax, identities and points of view shift many times – and it’s up for debate as to what has ‘actually’ been going on. Zulawski has a distinctive vision (he likes cool, blue-tinged images) which is sometimes abrasive, sometimes pretentious, but as often effectively terrifying or twisted.