Lice, Blood and Muck: Andrzej Zulawski’s Polish Apocalypse Trilogy

In the films of Andrzej Zulawski (1940 – 2016), the de facto state of the universe is apocalypse. As one character describes it in Zulawski’s feature debut, The Third Part of the Night (1971), it’s all “lice, blood and muck.” But this doesn’t just go for what we see on screen: behind the scenes, Zulawski had to face any number of doomsday scenarios that, had they been successful, would have kept his early work from ever seeing the light of day.

Zulawski entered the world amidst the largest catastrophe of modern times, born in the Ukrainian city of Lviv during the Nazi occupation. After the Germans were ousted by the Red Army four years later, Zulawski’s diplomat father Miroslaw managed to move his family to Paris. Zulawski split his time between France and Poland, eventually attending the prestigious Paris Film School and learning his craft. He would return to Poland and work as the assistant of that country’s most acclaimed and famous director, Andrzej Wadja, before striking out on his own with two well-received short films.

When making the jump into features, the daring, dashing Zulawski decided to mine his family’s experience during the war years, particularly that of his father, with whom he wrote the screenplay for The Third Part of the Night.

The film takes its title from the Biblical Book of Revelations (“And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon…and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise”), a reading of which opens the story. What follows is a Mobius strip narrative that begins and ends with the slaughter of a Polish family at a country estate by Gestapo forces/the horseman of the apocalypse. 

Sickly would-be lawyer Michal (Leszek Teleszyński) watches helplessly as his beautiful wife, young son, and mother are butchered. He manages to escape with his father back to an unnamed city (likely Warsaw), where he joins up with an underground resistance unit. But before he can make his first hand-off, he’s nearly captured by the Germans. Fleeing into one of the countless dilapidated apartment buildings lining the ghostly city streets, he crosses paths with another man wearing the same kind of coat, and watches—again, helplessly, which is his default mode it seems—as his pursuers mistake this stranger for him and haul him off to be tortured. Michal is taken in by the stranger’s pregnant bride, who also happens to be an exact doppelganger for his late wife (played by Zulawski’s then-wife, Małgorzata Braunek)—or so it appears to his deluded mind. 

After helping deliver her child in a grimy apartment unit (in one of the many disturbingly realistic scenes of extremity in Zulawski’s oeuvre—more on that later), Micahl decides to help care for this newly orphaned family by taking a job as a lice feeder. He’s injected with Typhus, then feeds his blood to lice, from which scientists can extract a vaccine. This grotesque act—rendered in sickening close-up during the movie’s most stomach-churning moments—seems like a potent metaphor for life under totalitarian occupation, but it is, in fact, based in fact. Zulawski’s father actually did this during the ‘40s. 

The Third Part of the Night was roundly condemned by Polish audiences, as well as government censors, for its graphic violence (there is perhaps no filmmaker who makes blood look as literally visceral as Zulawski) as well as its moral ambiguity (unlike other movies about the Polish resistance during WWII, Third Part has no interest in making its protagonist noble or heroic). But the powers-that-be at least allowed the film a small release, which is more than can be said for the next two films the director would make on his native soul.

While Third Part plays like a horror movie as much as it does a war/espionage thriller (especially during the hallucinatory final moments), Diabel (The Devil), made one year later, was outright described by Zulawski as such. While often disturbing and surreal, Polish cinema hadn’t produced much straight horror movies by that point, but (per film scholar Michael Brooke in his commentary on the new Masters of Cinema boxset) Zulawski thought the country was ready for one. 

He was wrong.

Set in 1793, during another period of carnage known as The Second Partition, when Prussia and Russia carved up parts of Poland (not unlike Germany and Russia would do almost 150 years later), Diabel follows a black-clad, unnamed political agent (Wojciech Pszoniak) as he busts political prisoner Jakub (played once again by Teleszynski, in a performance that is almost identical to his role in Third Part) out of a assylum dungeon and leads him back to his village, where he finds his family torn apart by madness, incest, murder, and suicide. There, the stranger—who is clearly either The Devil himself or at least one of his demonic emissaries—poisons Jakub’s mind and spirit, using him as a lethal weapon in which to dismantle a resistance group. 

The landscape we find in Diabel is even more hellish than that of Third Part. The various torments Zulawski mounts intentionally recall those described in Dante’s Inferno and shown in the painting of Hieronymus Bosch, while the head-spinning cinematography and camera work—seriously, god help us if the ‘Every Frame a Painting’ crowd ever discovers this film—from frequent Zulawski collaborators Andrzej Jaroszewicz and Maciej Kijowski bring to mind Caravaggio and Goya at their darkest and most baroque. The ravaged landscape on display in this film anticipates the one found in Elem Klimov’s similarly apocalyptic Come and See (1981), and would eventually serve as obvious inspiration for the likes of The Revenant (2015) and The Painted Bird (2019).

It would be a long time before anyone could see Diabel, however, as unlike Third Part, this film did not make it past the authorities. Zulawski had written the original, more traditionally gothic, scenario in such a way as to get it approved by the Soviet censors, before completely changing it during production. His finished version was a clear political allegory to the recent anti-government student uprisings of 1968, in which his brother Lukasz (who acts in Diabel, playing one of many characters whom Jakub brutally slices to bits with a straight razor) had participated, and for which he was punished with forced military conscription.

The censors were not fooled for an instant. They immediately barred the film from release, then ordered Zulawski to leave the country within 48 hours (he was not allowed to bring his wife or young son with him in the immediate moment). Zulawski, having ties to Paris, relocated there (as would fellow Polish expats Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski). He soon scored a big hit with his French-language melodrama Love is the Most Important Thing (1975). On the strength of the film’s international success, the Polish leadership—undergoing a brief period of liberalism— begged Zulawski to return, promising him carte blanche to make any movie of his choosing. As with Third Part, Zulawski looked towards his lineage for inspiration, choosing to adapt his great-uncle (or possibly his great-grandfather, depending on the source) Jerzy’s acclaimed science-fiction novels, known collectively as The Lunar Trilogy ( 1901-1911). 

On the Silver Globe (named for the first novel in the series) would prove to be the most expensive Polish production assembled up to that point, and boy, does that money make it to the screen. At nearly three hours, Globe is an epic of the size and scale of later sci-fi masterworks like Star Wars, Alien, and David Lynch’s Dune, although more than any finished film, it most resembles Alejandro Jodorowski’s doomed adaptation of that later property.

Globe, like all of Zulawski’s work, doesn’t follow anything like a conventional plot, often going off on stupefying philosophical digressions and narrative splintering that defy easy explanation or even explication (it’s this later quality that makes Lynch Zulawski’s closest point of comparison, although their aesthetic is completely different). As such, any attempt to summarize the film’s plot in great detail is a fool’s errand, but an abridged version might read as such:

At some point in the far future, a group of astronauts from earth arrive at a colony on an unnamed planet and discover video recordings made by the first humans to settle there hundreds of years in the past. Through these video logs, we watch as a group of Earth exiles succumbs one-by-one to the harsh alien terrain around them, even as they manage to populate the (seemingly) barren landscape. Decades later, this primeval society—who look like a mix between American indigenous populations, ancient Euro-barbarians, and the nuclear-age nomads of the Mad Max movies—is visited by a newly-arrived earthling named Marek (Andrzej Seweryn), who has fled his home planet in the wake of his actress wife leaving him for another man (this plot point was inspired by the real-life dissolution of Zulawski’s marriage to Braunek, territory he would mine to greater and harsher degree four years later in Possession). 

The tribe adopt Marek as their new leader and godhead, and he leads them in a bloody war of attrition against the native Sherns, a group of monstrous, telekinetic and cycloptic bird creatures from across the ocean. Eventually, Marek’s inherited kingdom turns on him, in so doing end up recreating the Passion of the Christ, as well as The Inquisition.

(These sections of Globe contain some of the most staggering displays of brutality ever captured on film, including a literally towering monologue delivered by a victim who’s been impaled, ass-first, onto a spike the size of a telephone pole, as well as a closeup of a nail being driven into a hand on a cross for which the production used a real cadaver’s extremity.)

Had Zulawski been able to complete and release On the Silver Globe as planned, who knows what the landscape of science fiction cinema might have looked like. In 2021’s documentary about the production, Escape to the Silver Globe, someone opines that it could have had the cultural impact of Star Wars, which … no, it could not have, given how relentlessly challenging and, at times, downright off-putting, the material is to all but the most hardcore of cinephiles. However, it would have undoubtedly made its mark, because it’s simply too huge a feat of filmmaking not to have.

Alas, this was not to be. Whereas Zulawski was allowed to at least complete Diabel, On the Silver Globe had its production halted—and its sets, props and costumes destroyed (save for those spirited away by brave members of the crew)—during the last leg of shooting. The reasons for this have been contested; some claim was over the transgressive nature of the film’s content, others because such an unwieldy production might have proved an national embarrassment upon release, while others still hold that it was simply an easy and convenient target for the new regime at the Ministry of Culture to make an example out of. But all parties agree that the decision to kill the movie was made by one man: Poland’s Vice-Minister of Cultural Affairs, Janusz Wilhelmi. 

Whatever his reasons, Wilhelmi got his way, and On the Silver Globe suffered its very own apocalypse. Zulawski once again left Poland for Europe, where he would live and work for the next twenty years, only making one more film there in 1996, after the fall of the Soviet Union: his gnarly erotic-horror thriller Szamanka (She-Shaman), which, wouldn’t you know it, ends with a nuclear apocalypse.

Interestingly, Wilhelmi would die in a plane crash shortly after murdering On the Silver Globe, an act of cosmic poetic justice that Zulawski takes credit for via a Shamanic retribution ritual. While this seems like a flight of fancy on Zulawski’s part, he did manage to outlast his censors, and the world would eventually get to see both Diabel and On the Silver Globe

In 1988, the same year that Diabel was finally given a release, Zulawski was able to “complete” Globe. Unfortunately, because the sets and costumes had all been destroyed, and the actors weren’t available, he couldn’t shoot the remaining scenes as planned, so instead he opted to describe the missing action via voiceover, which he then laid on top of scenes of everyday life in a modern Polish cityscape. The end result makes an already hard-to-follow film even more impenetrable, but it also adds to the layers of metanarrative which helps make it so unique (there is an argument to be made that Globe is the first found footage movie, predating the—surprisingly similar, in many respects—Cannibal Holocaust by 3 years).

The intervening decades have seen both films, along with Third Part of the Night, receive their due praise, even as they’ve remained obscure to most (and in particular, American) audiences. There’s any number of reasons for this: the challenging nature of the films, their lack of availability on streaming, etc. However, the widespread rediscovery of Possession over the last few years has put a spotlight on Zulawski’s other films, with Globe earning particular interest. Now that all three films have finally received restorations and a European Blu-ray release, it’s only a matter of time until they see a similar resurrection.

Ultimately, the apocalypse was no match for Andrzej Zulawski.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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