Movie Review: The Third Part of the Night
Director Andrzej Zulawski’s debut full-length feature The Third Part of the Night (Trzecia czesc nocy) is one of the most powerful anti-war movies I have ever seen.
Despite its feverish pace and claustrophobic oppressive feel, it documents with precision an obscure portion of a WWII history: the typhus vaccine invention and production. Rudolf Weigl’s research institute was located Lwow – Zulawski’s birthplace. The main character becomes one of the human subjects that feed the infected lice with their blood. Capsules with live swarms strapped onto their skin, so the insects may imbibe through a screen. It is after all the best job he could have. It absolves from deportations. To keep the “breeders” healthy, extra food rations are allocated. Still it gnaws at any soul, the insanity of risking one’s life to save oneself; the horrible irony hidden in the possibility to spread the illness and kill others accidentally, as one is trying to be an instrument of saving them. According to New York Times the director’s father was employed as a blood supplier for lice himself in the wartime.
The Third Part of the Night was shot in 1971, but it has lost none of its relevance or visual appeal. The audio is fantastic, as well. Original score by composer Andrzej Korzyński is an indispensable element contributing to the overall result. A few lone notes of a reed instrument in an arrangement not dissimilar from a regional folk ballad transitioned through strings into heavy electric guitar, occasional gentle use of percussion under dialogue tracks – all make for a rich experience. The device of gradation through music has found a great implementation in this film: the atrocities happen in brackets, as marginal events while the main character is trying to get more jam rations. Thus placing emphasis on gruesome incidents with the score feels appropriate. Food, permits, lodging and work invade every conversation. At least on the surface this is the repetition that occurs most prominently. But, all the while, there is someone executed in the streets, in an off-the-cuff, commonplace kind of a manner. While people stand in what could be a breadline, some stranger gets gunned down randomly. Hardly anyone reacts; they don’t seem to notice. A few sudden tones (either too high or too low pitched to be really pleasant) mark such occasions. Perhaps they are introduced to make the audience pause. Would we notice, unless instructed so by the music? Are we shell-shocked by our own realities into inertia, as well?
The film is surrealist at heart: one must not forget that the French New Wave and Czech(oslovak) New Wave cinema had just peaked, and both vigorously experimented with the plot-line and editing. The director himself identifies with the French avant-garde. After all, France is where he spent most of his creative life. One can observe this influence in his clean aesthetics, uncluttered landscapes, minimal cast, and his use of close-ups.
The Third Part of the Night may have a seemingly linear plot, but the logic of a standard progression is substituted for the logic of a dream – or a nightmare, to be precise. While the circumstance portrayed is the horrors of Poland’s Nazi occupation, the Kafkian tragedy depicting a futile effort to negotiate one’s existence with a merciless foe is rather topical. For example, Syrian Homs is a real place, not a Big Brother facility.
Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) watches his wife (strong performance by Malgorzata Braunek) and his son get killed, escaping narrowly himself, pulled to safety by his father. The nightmare may have begun earlier: his wife opens the film by reading the apocalyptic literature that was sourced for the movie title. The Book of Revelation where angel sounds a trumpet introducing complete darkness for one third of the night by blackening the stars is not foreshadowing the kingdom come, but the doom of slaughter, the demise of one third of mankind – at the very least in Zulawski’s interpretation. He is criticizing Christianity sharply. When Michal and his father stand over the corpses of their loved ones, the elder man recites a prayer asking the “merciless god, don’t spare any pity on us.”
Here, Michal starts his painful journey, trying to reconcile with the trauma. He keeps having waking visions of his son; every woman he meets has his wife’s appearance. They talk like her. For a minute it’s a doctor, at a research institute, herself a window; the next minute she is wearing his wife’s face, in her voice she instructs him how to feed the lice. Maybe his wife got him this job to save him. Or someone who looks like her but is not the doctor. It’s the woman who gave birth to a child that is not his. She now lives in a room at the convent where he and his wife used to live. Or so he thinks. The nun tells him the young mother does not look like his wife. It’s her husband who has been shot and detained because he was mistaken for Michal. Do you feel dizzy yet? Then, you are getting the right idea about the place that Michal inhabits. In his post-traumatic stress, he keeps responding to casual inquiries about how his family is doing. They are dead he says, but not to worry. They are no more. He keeps repeating the words, believing if he repeats them often enough he might understand what they mean.
Conversations are laden with so much meaning they seem absurd. But the heightened sense of imminent threat forces people to think in terms of survival. Every decision has impact: Michal is held back, five minutes late for a meeting, and it saves his life. He watches his comrades get shot, as he is tipped off to a trap by a passer-by.
Like I said: Michal is negotiating his existence. He knows is bound to fail, because in such a murderous world, is he not dead already? Still, he pauses to discuss Proust and his ability to write so close to his demise. His friend opposes his opinions about a possibility to create anything beautiful, when death looms large. If one is waiting to be fed into the bowels of a concentration camp, there is no time to spare for things other than action. The grand national traditions mean so little in this context – stemming from a long line of thinkers, writers, lawyers, he feels the futility of all intellectual efforts, as he has no way to help those dying.
The Christian texts quoted throughout, the religious rituals like covering the dead and praying over them, Michal’s regular visits with a nun to discuss his soul’s salvation – all are clearly displayed as pointless. The director points an accusatory finger at Catholicism, and in the context of WWII history, the religion’s role in the lives of Poles is a heavy, difficult topic to ponder. Powerful is the image of Michal’s father (Jerzy Golinski) burning his sheet music, effectively setting his house on fire, all the while reciting Dies Irae in Latin. The requiem is most appropriate. He knows he is burning useless objects amassed by prior generations that failed to lure his son to stay with him till the inevitable bitter end.
The universe reconstructed by Zulawski is a world of cruelty. It is a nightmare, but a nightmare where every event has already really happened. It could almost be a documentary, but really acknowledging that would be enough to drive anyone mad.