by Allan Fish
(Poland 1972 119m) DVD1
For the clearing…
p Andrzej Zulawski d/w Andrzej Zulawski ph Andrzej Jaroszewicz, Maciej Kijowski ed Krzysztof Oziecki m Andrzej Korzynski art Jan Grandys
Leszek Teleszynski (Jakub), Michal Grudzinski (Ezechiel), Wojciech Pszoniak (The Devil), Monika Niemczyk (a nun), Malgorzata Braunek (Jakub’s former fiancée), Iga Mayr (Jakub’s mother), Wiktor Sadecki (Herz), Anna Parzonka (Jakub’s sister), Maciej Englert (Count),
Imagine that you find yourself awoken from a dream, not knowing from whence you came or how you came to be where you are. Alright, an easy feeling to replicate for anyone who’s indulged in a little too much alcohol, but add to that the even greater sense of displacement of not only being in a place you don’t feel you belong but a time. Now awoke you find the whole world has changed so much your old world has literally burnt itself to cinders and you are left to wander aimlessly, as if in a trance, through an apocalyptic landscape of the mind and body.
In 1793 during the Polish wars with Prussia Jakub is in prison for plotting an assassination attempt against the puppet king of the Russian empire. His prison is a fortress cum convent and invaders ransack, rape and pillage the holy sanctuary, during which a stranger takes great pains to free Jakub and takes along with him an orphan nun. He sends Jakub on his way, seeing him intermittently afterwards, as Jakub firstly returns to his family seat to find his father dead and unburied for a fortnight, his sister sent mad and his brother seeking to have sexual relations with her. In transpires that his late father became deranged in his last days and thought his daughter was his errant wife, forcing himself sexually on her. As if this were not enough, he finds out that his long-absent mother has become a prostitute living not too far away.
Zulawski’s film, like his entire oeuvre, is not for everyone. He’s been responsible for some garbage in his time, not least the unfathomably well-received in some quarters Possession, in which Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani gave their worst ever performances. There’s a similar level of hysteria here, but it works far better in that it doesn’t intend profundity, rather intending to showcase the world as a living hell. Amid such bestiality and violence, incest and rape is seen as the natural progression, and Jakub is doomed to be driven mad in turn, killing mother, sister and brother alike in a killing spree that comes to an end only when he asks his one-time rescuer whether the world seems horrible to him because of his illness or because it really is that horrible. The stranger, of course, is the devil, after his soul and to wreak more carnage on the earth, and his death at the hands of a nun after he tries to rape her – after which he turns into a dog – could be seen as a victory of light over darkness, were it not for the fact that the nun herself, in the final credits, is seen undressing afore a man to begin her own descent into debauchery and sin.
In the role of Danté in this modern inferno, Teleszynski looks suitably horrified and the ever reliable Braunek (as pregnant former fiancée), Parzonka (abused sister) and Niemczyk (the companion nun) are all suitably beyond hope as the unfortunate women sacrificed on the altar of anarchy. Dominating all, however, is Pszoniak, perhaps best known as Rosespierre in Wajda’s Danton, but here supremely, devilishly manic as the dark stranger. It obviously struck a chord for the film was never publicly shown in 1972, held up by the authorities until 1988. It’s a hard film to sit through, an even harder film to analyse too closely, rather best let it flow over you. When Jakub talks of a foetid stench in his former family home it’s a feeling one can sense if not actually smell. It’s a rotting, festering cancer of a film from a director whose principal purpose seems to be, to paraphrase Russell Crowe’s Maximus, “are you not appalled?” And how can one not be; watching The Devil is to stand at the edge of a giant plague pit and see the corpses stir and rise like the dead of Gance’s J’Accuse. And behold, I saw a pale horse…