Best known for the cult psychodrama Possession (1981), writer-director Andrzej Żuławski made his feature debut ten years earlier with The Third Part of the Night, and it shows him already at the height of his powers. A sustained nightmare about societal and personal breakdown, it presents one man’s descent into madness during the Nazi occupation of Poland, though the story is hard to follow (perhaps by design). Żuławski divulges important information about the characters in short, unexpected bursts, and the plot moves sinuously between the hero’s present, past, and dream life. Moreover, the camera is almost always moving hurriedly around the characters, as though the director were having trouble keeping up with his own subjects. These devices can make a viewer feel lost, much as the hero feels in his own experience.
Based on the wartime memories of Żuławski’s father, Mirosław, Third Part centers on a 22-year-old intellectual named Michal (Leszek Teleszyński) who is convalescing from a long illness at his family’s country estate in the company of his parents, his wife (Małgorzata Braunek), and her young son from a previous marriage. No sooner has Żuławski introduced these five characters than Nazi soldiers descend on the estate, killing Michal’s wife, stepson, and mother, and setting fire to the house. Michal and his father return to their apartments in Lvov, and Michal joins the anti-Nazi resistance, but on his first mission he and a colleague are sabotaged by secret police, the colleague is killed, and Michal runs for his life. Finding refuge in the apartment of a woman (also played by Braunek) who’s about to give birth, Michal delivers the baby and then resolves to help the young mother.
Żuławski never indicates whether the pregnant woman, Marta, is the dead wife’s doppelganger or whether Michal, driven mad by his experience, just thinks she is. The filmmaker also stages Michal’s dreams and hallucinations, raising the question of whether the details from these scenes are true. Other situations that seem outlandish were actually based on fact: after settling down with Marta, Michal finds work as a blood donor at a scientific institute breeding lice for disease research, and in fact the Rudolf Weigl Institute in Lvov paid intellectuals for this very purpose during World War II. The only thing beyond dispute in Third Part is the horror of the Nazi occupation, in which brutal violence and police roundups occur with shocking regularity. Żuławski would go on to make other, more abstract films about lives descending into chaos (not only Possession but also On the Silver Globe), yet in The Third Part of the Night such breakdowns are rooted in history. v