Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut is a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.
Set during the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut opens as Michal, recovering from an illness in the countryside, witnesses the murder of his wife Helena and son Lukasz by soldiers on horseback. Back in the city, he joins the resistance and is wounded when a secret meeting is ambushed by the Gestapo. He is saved when his pursuers mistake a man wearing a similar trench coat and hat for him, shooting him before taking him away. In the captured man’s apartment, Michal finds his distraught, heavily pregnant wife Marta. She suddenly goes into labour, and Michal has no choice but to assist her. Struck by her resemblance to his deceased wife, and seeing this as a second chance, he supports her and the baby by returning to his former employment as a lice feeder at a medical institute working to produce a typhus vaccine. But he is riddled by guilt and attempts to mount a rescue operation to save Marta’s husband from the Gestapo.
The film was inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s father Miroslaw, who co-wrote the script after collaborating with his son on two literary adaptations for Polish television. Central to the story is Rudolf Weigl’s Institute in Lvov (where Żuławski was born), which fabricated a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Like many Polish intellectuals, Miroslaw was employed there during the war, and involved in a project whereby cages of lice would be attached to the legs to feed on a person’s blood. The insects would then be infected with typhus and their intestines dissected to prepare the vaccine. Many intellectuals and underground resistance fighters worked at this institution on this particular form of research and development because lice feeders were given identity papers, and fear of infection kept the occupying Germans away.
From the opening of The Third Part of the Night, a reading from the Book of Revelations heard over shots of desolate rural landscapes, it is clear that this is not a straightforward war film. The Polish underground is evoked through a few elliptical snapshots, but no significant actions: the gunning down of a man, a pursuit by the Gestapo, and the existential musings of the movement’s blind leader. The dominant dark blue colours bathe the film in an oppressive, eerie glow, and the hand-held camera limits the field of vision and heightens the impression of ominous dread and disorientation. The lice-feeding is both a symbol for the apocalyptic times and an astonishing historical reality, signalling that the world has descended into a surreal nightmare in which people are physically and figuratively drained – one character, for example, is said to have collapsed mentally after being fed on in this manner, as though his very identity had been taken away along with his blood.
The swarming insects represent not just the bewildering horrors of wartime, but also its ambiguities. Lice-feeding is ‘loathsome’ in Michal’s words, yet it also offers protection from the Germans. It is a powerful image for a world where everything has become ambivalent, where certainties, moral but also perceptual, are denied. The idea that the old world has collapsed is expressed by Michal’s father, and it is paralleled by the dissolving of Michal’s grasp on reality, as he is alone in seeing a resemblance between Helena and Marta. And where Helena appeared ruthless and cruel, Marta seems gentle and vulnerable, as if the double incarnation of his lover expressed Michal’s ambivalence towards her, as well as the unreliability of his perceptions.
This loss of moral and perceptual certainty is triggered both by the collective trauma of the German occupation and by Michal’s personal struggle to adjust to fatherhood. His sense of shock is made evident by the scene of Marta’s labour: Żuławski cut footage of a real childbirth into the film, splicing reality and fiction, which, as with the lice-feeding, highlights the unsettling strangeness of life, the weirdness of the real. And while this duplication of the family is seen by Michal as a chance to be a better father, the motif of the double has a fatal circularity. Michal and Marta repeat Michal and Helena’s actions, and in the final sequence Michal faces himself in a dead end prefigured in the earlier escape scene. Michal’s flight from the Gestapo up the spiral staircase in Marta’s building in fact offered no issue – except maybe a passage to another dimension of reality, or death.
Żuławski would replicate this scene 10 years later in the notorious Possession, a film that strongly echoes his debut, similarly charting the disintegration of a couple against a historically charged background – in this case, a divided Berlin – using a central doppelganger motif. In Possession, Żuławski fully embraced his tendency to excess, literally materialising the monstrous, grotesque side of reality more obliquely evoked in The Third Part of the Night, but both films offer a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.