Zulawski is probably most known in the UK for the 1981 cult horror film Possession (tagline: ‘Inhuman ecstasy fulfilled’), starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill as a married couple whose relationship falls apart in spectacular, not to mention tentacular, fashion. That film is notorious for being caught up in the UK’s video nasty scandal of the 1980s.
In Europe, Zulawski is known for the Romy Schneider vehicle, L’important c’est d’aimer, which surely deserves to be released on Blu-ray here.
The major draw in this boxed set is On The Silver Globe, a three hour sci-fi epic that was filmed in the early 1970s then ordered destroyed by the Polish authorities, only to resurface in 1988. The bits that could not be found were replaced with contemporary footage of city life, with narration filling in the story.
On The Silver Globe is uniquely weird. Astronauts land on a desolate planet to start a new society. Fast forward decades and another astronaut lands on the planet to find out what happened to the previous lot. Things have all gone a bit Tarkovsky meets Mad Max, but no description can truly prepare you for On The Silver Globe!
In terms of both story and seriousness of tone, On The Silver Globe reminds me of Aleksey German’s Hard to Be A God. But formally they are very different, and their form is challenging for different reasons.
Zulawski’s style is highly overwrought, with in-your-face camerawork, fish-eyed lenses and deliciously grimy visuals and set design.
The handheld camera rushes around, through and often away from the action, while emotionally disturbed characters shout at it. The experience is very disorienting, even before you get your head round the story. The subtitles are packed with high-concept mental doodlings that definitely call for a rewatch.
Zulawski’s debut film, The Third Part of the Night, is stylistically more sober – although the story is utterly nightmarish – apparently because Zulawski was paying homage to his mentor Andrzej Wajda. This has an intriguing plot, based on Zulawski’s family’s experiences during World War 2, and effortlessly plugs into that eastern European tradition of Kafka-esque hyper-surrealism. If the thought of lice makes you queasy, you might not want to watch this one, as a plot line concerns people who are paid extra wartime rations for feeding lice with their own blood, to help make typhus vaccine.
The Devil, Zulawski’s second film, is the least successful of the three films here. The overwrought film style explodes onto the screen but the allegorical tale he tells feels limp in comparison to the film form.
Extras include a good documentary on the director’s career and early films, up to and including On The Silver Globe.
Andrzej Zulawski: Three Films is out in a Eureka! Limited Edition Blu-ray on 28 August 2023.