There's a lot that can be written about Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski's debut feature film, "The Third Part of the Night". Not merely because it's a highly complex, genre-bending work of art that deals with guilt, redemption, psychosis, death and decay in the backdrop of World War II, likened in a very cleverly allegorical manner, to the apocalypse no less, but also because the roots of this great piece of cinema are firmly embedded in Zulawski's memories of his own troubled childhood, and the stories penned down by his father, detailing his personal, traumatic experience of survival in a war-stricken environment. This connection of his to the narrative, makes "The Third Part of the Night" a rather personal film for Zulawski, as he puts his heart and soul into its making, thus, ensuring that his work manages to grab the viewers by their jugular and shove their faces into this dark, depressing world! Perhaps he feels this is the only way to make his viewers feel the horrors that the characters in this film live with.
Set during the time of the German invasion of Poland, Zulawski's film tells the story of Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) a man just recovering from some illness who helplessly watches his son, mother and wife Helena (Malgorzata Braunek), get massacred by some German soldiers in their isolated home in the country. A guilt-ridden and grief-stricken Michal returns to town to join an old 'resistance' group he used to be a part of. However, things go awry yet again, but as luck would have it, he finds himself saved from the clutches of the Germans when they mistakenly shoot and take into custody another man in Michal's place! Michal then lands up in this man's house, and helps his wife Marta who bears a striking resemblance to Helena, to deliver her child. Michal finds it difficult to believe it to be a mere coincidence that Marta resembles Helena, and sees it as his chance at redemption. Michal takes it upon himself to take care of Marta and the child, while also taking up the 'loathsome' but 'best he can get' job of feeding lice to produce vaccines in return for legal status and regular supply of food. But is there really hope for Michal and the other oppressed individuals around him? Or is salvation a distant dream?
Zulawski takes the memoirs penned by his father and converts them into a horrifying visual experience, giving us apocalyptic images, random, pessimistic ramblings bordering on insanity, perhaps due to the impact on the characters’ senses, seeing the horrors around them. Sample this:
“Oh, God, who does not lead us. Oh, God, who allows the fragile to be killed and who elevates blind hatred. Oh, God, who allows cruelty to be propagated and people to torment each other. Oh, God, who elevates the most evil ones and puts the whip into their hands. Oh, merciless God, have no mercy upon us.”
That’s actually an excerpt from a prayer said by Michal’s father (Jerzy Golinski) after the aforementioned three family members are mercilessly killed. It is a sharp, negative reaction to a situation that seems to be clearly out of hand. Or maybe it is the director’s own view that God and prayers never helped anyone! Michal is the only character who seems to be any hopeful about the future. Is it a coincidence then, that he is named after the archangel St. Michael, who, in the Book of Revelations, leads God’s armies against Satan’s forces? Maybe not, what with verses from The Book of Revelations sprinkled in generous doses in the film, hinting that perhaps these verses represent prophecies and indeed ‘Saint Michal’ will deliver all from evil! In a surreal sequence, a man wearing a mask appears to Michal and Michal confesses to him something to the effect that he is experiencing a crisis of faith to which the man retorts “You must ask God only silent questions!” and hands over a Bible in which he has marked quotations pertaining to a prophecy which Michal reads out. It is not difficult to connect the marked quotations to the context of the film. But just moments after the ‘prophecy’ is read out, the masked man meets his eventual fate which perhaps the prophecy had failed to predict!
The lice-feeding to produce vaccines against Typhoid is a very important aspect of the film. This part is also taken from Zulawski’s father’s real life experiences. In extreme close-up, the process of deriving vaccines from the countless blood-sucking tiny creatures is shown in minute detail! The stress on this process is to highlight how the lice depend on their feeders and vice versa, for survival! It is a very pertinent symbolism used in the film to a very powerful effect. We can only derive from the vague narrative that offers clues, but never makes anything explicitly clear, that it is the lice that are in a way acting as catalysts for the chemical reactions that occur in the characters of the film. For one, it affects them physically and they are perpetually running a sort of fever. Along with the physical irritation to the skin, there is an effect on the mind that is presumably leading to mental degradation and hallucinatory symptoms. This effect is presented in the oddball mannerisms of some characters and how they react or behave in certain situations.
Especially, it is Michal’s state of mind that raises a lot of questions. Is Marta being a lookalike of Helena in his mind? At least twice, his sister Klara (Anna Milewska) who is a nun in a nearby convent points out to him that Marta doesn’t look anything like Helena! Further hints come in the form of some extraordinary shots in which Michal’s reality, dreams and memories from the past coexist in a single scene. Whenever Michal gets any close to Marta, his dead son sneaks up on him and watches with remorseful eyes. Later, Marta and her supposed ‘double’, Helena appear in the same scene! It is a masterstroke of writing that succeeds in making clear, the muddled state of Michal’s mind! A conversation between the lice feeders at the table, hints at the tendency to adhere to something imaginary when all hope is lost! This conversation comes up rather abruptly in a discussion about the futility of literature, but throws light on real life stories of some writers who sought a kind of support in their own non-existent creations in their final days!
The cinematography is aptly bleak and there's an eerie look to some of the dark and dreary landscapes captured. Although Zulawski uses long takes, he doesn’t always stick to steady shots. To enhance the confusion and the urgency of the situation, he mostly uses handheld camera that follows his protagonist as it tracks his every move in a hurried manner in some of the film’s most suspenseful scenes. Special mention must be made of the deliberately long child birth scene, which is mostly off-screen (but for a split second detail) but has an extra powerful effect, solely based on the facial expressions of the two lead actors in the two most brilliant performances in the film! It couldn’t get more real than this, although the actual event is mostly confined to off-screen!
Towards the final act, the film attempts culmination with Michal’s attempts to save Marta’s husband from the Germans’ clutches in a startling crescendo of sorts when Michal’s world grows increasingly bizarre and threatens to come full circle! Or does it?
For all its negativity, madness and hysteria, Zulawski’s film is an unforgettable, emotional journey that succeeds in conveying to the audience, his vision of doom and destruction, not with the help of violent visuals of the war (those are merely just touched upon), but by giving us a morbid, inside look in the minds of the individuals who live in constant fear and make their best attempt at survival from the atrocities that they could very well have to face sooner or later.