LIFF30: Zulawski – A Retrospective on some of the director‘s best works

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While it has become something of a cultural in-joke that 2016 has seen a swathe of artists and celebrities pass away, one less talked about, but no less essential, filmic artist of the 21st century also passed away this past year, Andrzej Zulawski. The visionary Polish director is a little lesser known in the English speaking world, as his filmography includes only one film in the English language, Possession, a notorious video-nasty banned in the UK during the 1980s. Zulawski’s work, however, compromises a phenomenally rich vein of European art-house, so I attended screenings of three of his most notable works at the Everyman Cinema as part of LIFF30: The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Sliver Globe.

The Third Part of the Night is, even as his debut feature, unmistakably Zulawski. It’s admirable that the director had such a clear vision of what he wanted his films to be right from the very beginning. All the Zulawskian tropes are already out in full force: the histrionic acting, doppelgangers, the wildly spiralling camera movement, themes of religion, transgression, the macabre, are all present and accounted for.

The Devil, as the name may suggest, brings the transgressive nature of Zulawski’s filmmaking to the next level, so much so that the film was banned in his native Poland. Darker still than The Third Part of the Night, The Devil is an Eastern European corollary to Rosemary’s Baby, or The Exorcist. Though much less accessible than the two aforementioned films, it is no less rich in aesthetic, or compromising in its willingness to perturb its audience. The late 18th century setting not only adds to the overt religious undertones to the film but, as I’m sure Zulawski wished, but provides enough distance with the modern day to examine historical trauma and its manifestations in contemporary life. This is another key tenant of his filmmaking, yet sadly the Polish censors were not so easily fooled.

‘The trifecta I was lucky enough to view is enough to convince anyone of Zulawski’s unique vision, captivatingly bizarre style, and undeniable talent.’

Like many of Zulawski’s works, On the Silver Globe has unfortunately been subjected to more discussion surrounding its production than the film itself. Invited back to Poland after his success in France, Zulawski attempted to adapt a much loved sci-fi novel written by his granduncle Jerzy Zulawski. Production was halted 80% to completion by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, critical of what they thought to be the film’s thinly-veiled critique of the communist government. Assembled while still incomplete, the film could be accused of being even more disjointed than a typical Zulawski affair, though having lost none of its visually arresting qualities. Especially in the new digital restoration I watched, the film is absolutely achingly gorgeous.

The trifecta I was lucky enough to view is enough to convince anyone of Zulawski’s unique vision, captivatingly bizarre style, and undeniable talent. Beautiful, grotesque, striking and unnerving all in equal measure, he is a filmmaker anyone with an interest in the medium should be acquainted with. If Tarkovsky allowed us to occupy dreams, Zulawski gave us access to nightmares, and created truly absorbing cinematic experiences that ran totally counter-current to what one could find in Anglosphere filmmaking. Do yourself a favour and expand your filmic horizons by seeking his work out for yourself.

Jonathan Atkinson

(Image courtesy of Seann Webb)

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