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The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia Czesc Nocy)

November 20, 2011

Registering for the Hamburg city library has turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in some time; I currently have Japón (Carlos Reygadas), The Man From London (Béla Tarr), The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov) and Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil) out on loan waiting to be watched, and it also allowed me to see a film I’ve wanted to watch for quite a while – The Third Part of the Nightby Andrzej Zulawski.

The Third Part of the Night

The director is best known for his film, Possession, starring Sam Neil and Isabelle Adjani, which gained a degree of notoriety thanks to its inclusion on the list of `Video Nasties’ produced by the Director of Public Prosecutions in the 1980s. Like most of the films on this list, Possession has now been released uncut, and I’m keen to seek it out after watching this film, his debut from 1971.

The film is set in German-occupied Poland; it begins with a young man recovering from an undefined illness, only to have his wife, son, and mother killed by German soldiers who break into their house in the countryside. Following this, he joins the resistance. While on the run from Gestapo officers, another man is mistaken for him, shot, and captured. From this point, present and past begin to intertwine in a series of surreal and dreamlike scenes, where identities become confused and his own dead wife becomes conflated with the pregnant wife of the wrongly-arrested man, who he attempts to help by taking a job as a `feeder’; feeding lice with his blood in order to help the production of Typhus vaccine.

The film has a constantly uneasy atmosphere, heightened by a a slippery, shifting timeline in which the present and the past slide over each other, switching from one to the other with few clues. In this way, the film does an excellent job of portraying the psychological strain which the protagonist finds himself under. Wracked with guilt over the apprehension of an innocent man, and his failure to protect his own family, he endeavours to alleviate these feelings by protecting a woman who (to the viewer, although apparently not to all observers) is the double of his dead wife.

The scenes depicting his feeding work are among the most memorable and unusual; it is a bizarre-sounding procedure but is apparently based in fact. We are treated to close-up photography of lice-mouthpieces latching on to their hosts, pulsing and expanding, recontextualizing a relatively harmless pest into something horrific. There are also numerous socio-historical messages that could be read into the process; lice feeding on the blood of the people, with those who co-operate given preferential treatment in the form of a large salary, better rations, and immunisation for them and their families. The soundtrack is also terrific, fully of darkly psychedelic fuzz.

This is a very engrossing, unsettling, occasionally disturbing film. I’m looking forward to investigating the rest of Zulawski’s filmography now, and I hope it measures up to the quality of this first film.

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