Screenshot: Possession

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV. 

It’s common for viewers first coming to the work of the late Polish director Andrzej Żuławski to find it both wildly undisciplined and inspired. His films seem lost in their own making, with scenes or sometimes even individual shots directed without apparent consideration for how they’re supposed to fit in the whole; a Żuławski movie’s contradictory, usually enigmatic interpretations of a central theme are held together by force of will, and appear to dangle on the edge of an abyss. Possession, a 1981 English-language horror film shot in West Berlin with an international cast, is a perfect example of the confounding, multi-suggestive Żuławski style. It’s probably his most famous film in the United States (along with another unclassifiable “genre” effort, the unfinished sci-fi movie On The Silver Globe), and one I’d been meaning to revisit for years.

Broadly, it’s about the breakdown of a marriage between a spy (Sam Neill) and a ballet teacher (Isabelle Adjani), represented by creepy green-eyed doppelgängers, self-destructive trances (including Adjani’s breakdown and miscarriage in a pedestrian tunnel, the most celebrated scene in Żuławski’s oeuvre), and a slimy, tuber-looking monster. But the plot is nightmarish with internal clashes and double meanings—including the title, which both implies and critiques the Neill character’s horrified point of view by simultaneously evoking demonic influence and ownership. The game is to keep as many genres and meanings in play as possible—the Cold War thriller, the domestic psychodrama, supernatural horror, Berlin as a divided city, the husband as secret agent of unknown global powers, the wife as performer—so that no particular metaphor becomes exhausted, even after shootouts and gruesome special effects enter the picture.

Screenshot: The Third Part Of The Night

A couple of weeks after Possession, I finally got around to Żuławski’s 1971 debut feature, The Third Part Of The Night, which has to be the strangest film made about the Polish resistance during World War II. A sickly law student (Leszek Teleszyński) who looks suggestively like Franz Kafka—or more specifically, like Sami Frey’s Kafka-styled character from Band Of Outsiders—joins the anti-Nazi underground after soldiers slaughter his family, only to be plunged into horror; in a chase, Gestapo agents mistakenly shoot a lookalike, whose pregnant wife (Małgorzata Braunek, who married Żuławski the same year; later, their messy divorce would inspire Possession) turns out to be a double for the hero’s own Gothically murdered bride.

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Doppelgängers and mistaken identities were key parts of Żuławski’s dreamlike vocabulary. But at the center of the film is something even weirder: the Institute For Study Of Typhus And Virology, a real-life research lab where Jews and Polish intellectuals (including the director’s own father) were sheltered by the biologist Rudolf Weigl, who employed them as “feeders” for infected lice in the eventually successful development of a typhus vaccine. This dingy, claustrophobic fever-dream factory points to the origins of Żuławski’s fragmented, hysterical style: in a wartime reality where even relative safety resembled the stuff of nightmares.