The three most revolutionary filmmakers to emerge from Poland after World War II—Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Zulawski—might not have been so revolutionary had they not also been so Polish. All three are old enough to remember the end of the war, when the Nazi occupation gave way to the Soviet occupation without so much as a moment of self-rule between them. From the 1790s to the end of the Cold War, Poland was a sovereign nation for only 25 years. One can easily see why Polanski, Skolimowski, and Zulawski all have been drawn to psychological horror, black comedy, and defeatism: these are central aspects of Polish history.
Nearly all of Polanski’s films are available in the United States, and Skolimowski has enjoyed sporadic attention here as well. But Zulawski, despite his notoriety in Europe, remains all but unknown in this country. None of his 12 features has been distributed here theatrically except for a butchered version of Possession (1981). This is a shame, because Zulawski has created some of the most original, unpredictable, and downright terrifying of modern European movies. His work sustains a level of intensity that few films ever reach at all. They’re filled with graphic violence, perverse sexuality, and hysterical emotional outbursts, yet they also contain bold color, allusions to high culture, and sincere professions of love and longing. Zulawski brings together extremes in the hope that the interaction will be explosive. “The cinema is an instrument of mega force,” he said in a 1996 interview, “to shake, to break the barriers, to show you something you couldn’t imagine possible.”
Possession, the original cut of which screens this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, is Zulawski’s most fully realized effort and probably the best introduction to his work. It represents a culmination of everything he’d made until then and his peak moment as a director of actors. Performed in English, produced with French money, and shot in Berlin by an international crew, it conveys a sense of displacement that had been crucial to his work from the beginning. His first and second features, The Third Part of the Night (1971) and The Devil (1972), depicted major breakdowns of Polish society—during World War II and the 1793 partition of Poland respectively—as disorienting nightmares. Following state suppression of The Devil (an allegory for the communist government’s persecution of dissidents in 1968), Zulawski moved to France and directed That Most Important Thing: Love (1975). This time the breakdowns were not societal but personal, taking place inside the characters. But as wrenching as that movie may be, it hardly prepares one for the apocalyptic vision of Possession.
Within minutes the film lets you know you’re in for a wild ride. After the opening titles (which are accompanied by a creepy electronic composition and include the foreboding credit “special effects for the creature”), Zulawski introduces the protagonists just as they’re coming undone. Mark (Sam Neill) visits his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), after a period of separation. Though they appear to have hurt each other in the past, they struggle to make the best of the afternoon: they play happily with their young son and even go to bed together. But after sex they fall back into the cyclical argument they’ve been having for some time. These moments seem to promise a discomforting marital drama like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) or John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and the actors’ raw-nerve vulnerability evokes the heightened realism of those films.
But then something strange happens. Mark confers with some men for whom he’s recently completed an assignment (Zulawski never explains what it is, but it seems to be surveillance-related). As they cryptically discuss his work, the camera circles the room several times, occasionally veering away from the actors by as much as a dozen yards. It’s a virtuosic shot, but it has no discernible connection to the scene: one feels as though the camera has taken on a life of its own. This is a stylistic signature of Zulawski’s, and he employs it often in the film. It connotes a world so debased that even the attempt to record it is corrupted.
After the conference Mark returns home, goes through his wife’s things, and uncovers clues that she’s been cheating on him. When they meet at a cafe he confronts her, and their argument grows so heated that Mark starts destroying everything in sight. The scene ends abruptly, with several waiters rushing into the shot to restrain him. The next thing we know, Mark is sitting in a hotel room, three weeks into a self-destructive bender. Zulawski flashes back to this lengthy debauch through several quick shots—including one terrifying image of Mark convulsing and foaming at the mouth—that purposely confuse our sense of narrative time.
The events above constitute the first 15 minutes of Possession, and things only get stranger from there; the final third of the movie is so nightmarish it’s difficult to synopsize at all. Zulawski is less concerned with telling a story than with putting the viewer through an experience. As if to externalize the pain of romantic separation (not coincidentally, Zulawski conceived of the film just after he and his first wife split), the movie depicts the breakdown of all acceptable behavior and, ultimately, narrative logic itself. About a third of the way in, Zulawski reveals that Anna has taken another apartment, where she hides an unearthly creature that resembles a giant squid and sometimes makes love to her. Later Mark and Anna turn into homicidal maniacs. The descent into supernatural horror and exploitation-style violence is upsetting precisely because it feels so random, and Zulawski renders the grotesque elements so vividly that they don’t register as metaphors. The horror is indigestible.
Oddly this sense of horror is only heightened by the moments of quiet sincerity, when the apocalypse gives way to some stinging observation of the pain two people can inflict on each after having known each other intimately. In one scene Mark weeps in front of Anna as he struggles to make sense of his feelings for her. “When I’m away from you I think of you as an animal,” he confesses, “but when I see you that disappears. You have to help me.” In typical Zulawski fashion, this confession prompts Anna to slice her own neck with an electric carving knife.
Moments like these might seem risible if Zulawski’s players weren’t investing themselves so wholly in their roles. Possession is an extraordinary document of actors pushed to their breaking point: it’s frightening partly because Neill and Adjani look as if they’re really losing their minds. Before shooting began, Zulawski spent several days working them into a trancelike state that allowed them to express freely their most primal emotions. This method was inspired by Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski (a major influence on Zulawski), who viewed performing as a “total act” and felt that actors should exploit the intimacy of live theater to confront the audience directly. Possession succeeds like few other movies in re-creating this onscreen; in fact Zulawski claims that when Adjani saw the completed film, she couldn’t believe what she’d done. She shouted at him, “You have no right to put the camera in this way because it looks inside one’s soul!”
That’s as good a way as any of describing Zulawski’s confounding masterpiece. Possession conveys the fear that some terrible rift—madness, war, apocalypse—might sever us from our own identity. Zulawski communicates this by perverting nearly every convention of narrative cinema—even the exterior shots, which we count on to provide a sense of geography. Completely devoid of extras, the locations in Possession seem as alien as a lunar landscape. This awful sense of dislocation is what makes Possession a truly Polish film, no matter where it was made: the characters can’t go home again, because they’ve never had one.