As a fan of Zulawski’s Possession, I’d wanted to see this, his first film, for a long time. The cover image is startling—a close-up of a beautiful woman’s face gorged with blood; her eyes seem to say she might even understand the violence done to her, accepting her inevitable fate. But do not go into 1971’s The Third Part of the Night expecting abject horror (though it is labeled such on a few websites). The film is horrific for more psychological reasons and there is not as much gore as, say, Possession.
The story follows a young writer and revolutionary named Michal and his struggle to stay alive in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. It opens with shots of remote deathly blue landscapes and a woman reading aloud from The Book of Revelations. Many of the characters continue this kind of prophetic tongue throughout the film, presenting apocalyptic fear that runs clear through to the end. This is the holocaust—this is the end of the world for them. There is no one left to trust. There is a gun at your back at all times. Zulawski’s camera angles capture this fear well, using extremely tight close-up shots on the characters’ faces while they’re experiencing extreme terror, pain or mania. At other times, the camera remains from a vantage point, watching a sudden murder or figure looming in the shadows. But both serve to keep the viewer on edge—it reveals the kind of paranoia that lurks outside us, as well as within.
No spoiler here (as you’ll find it in any recap of the film online), but Michal ‘s entire family are killed, save his father, within the first ten minutes of the film. For the duration of the story, Michal must face his loneliness, no longer sure what to live for, or fight for, in an empty city. The first woman he meets looks strangely identical to his dead wife and, having to help her deliver her baby, is overcome with responsibility and immediate attachment to her. We’re forced to wonder if this love is genuine or if it is yet another symptom of living during an apocalypse. And then we are forced to ask ourselves, is love—however sudden and seemingly slight—worth sacrificing for?
The only thing that keeps Michal from being killed in the ravaged town is his job. He is paid to be a host for lice, manufacturing a typhoid vaccine to keep Nazi soldiers healthy. In the lab, amidst the white coats and painful repetition, his dead wife returns to remind him that this is the best shot at staying alive that he could hope for, yet he is being paid to strengthen the men who took away anything that ever mattered to him in his life. Several close-up shots of the hungry blood-sucking insects are pretty vile, reminiscent of maggots. The viewer realizes, almost in sync with the hosts, that there is little difference in this life between them and donated corpses.
Michal finds himself in an alternate reality, caring for a wife and child who are not his, and letting his imagination take hold of him to avoid the holocaust all around him. He witnesses murders of those he thought were safe, but soon finds no one is safe or even sane, least of all him. The score is beautiful and gripping. Electric guitar uses a slight delay to mimic shots ringing out while a steady electronic beat quietly creeps underneath–perhaps like the pumping of blood or a Gestapo’s horses hooves on the pavement. Either way, it’s an eerie and threatening sound full of anxiety.
I’d give this one a 3.5 zombie heads. The frightening parts lie mostly in the performances and the cinematography; so much is implied and left up to the mind. At any rate, it’s an incredible first film for a young director at the time. Viewers looking for something more exciting by today’s standards could skip this, but if you love psychological drama and high skin-crawling tension, this is for you.
3.5 out of 5 Zombie Heads