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Andrzej Żuławski: Three Films (Blu-Ray Review)

6 min read

Courtesy of Eureka

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

By nature of the numerous hoops it's necessary to jump through to get even the most barebones film project off the ground, few filmmakers can boast both a reputation as a countercultural maverick and an extensive filmography. Fewer still have a legitimate claim to having directed the best monster movie starring . And while it's not surprising that Andrzej Żuławski is most remembered internationally for his sole English language feature, the bonkers divorce drama-cum-creature feature (1981), this latest release from Eureka provides a far fuller account of his artistic oeuvre.

: Three Films brings together three of Żuławski's best-loved works, (1971), (1972), and (1988), as well as 's feature documentary on the making of the latter, (2021)—arguably making this four films for the price of three. As with any auteur, watching these films in quick succession reveals his most persistent artistic preoccupations, most particularly his political disenfranchisement with his homeland of Poland, his desaturated, icy visions of the apocalypse, and his increasingly esoteric metaphysical musings on the nature of human existence. Not one for the faint of heart, then.

Taking each of these in turn, Żuławski's debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, sees the Polish malcontent on strong form straight out the gate. Set during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, we follow Michal () in the aftermath of the brutal murder of his mother, wife, and son by Nazi soldiers at their family home. Michal's attempts to join the resistance immediately run into issues after his go-between is killed and he himself is pursued through the city streets, taking refuge in the house of a woman named Marta (Małgorzata Braunek) who is a doppelganger of his dead wife. That he further ends up getting her husband arrested in a case of mistaken identity is just the second in a series of mysterious doublings.

Żuławski's vision of Nazi-occupied Poland is a disorienting one, the sparse streets and bemusing interactions Michal faces feeling more akin to purgatory than wartime. As Michal reckons with the severity of his personal losses, cut adrift from any earthly connection, so too does the world around him collapse into grotesque absurdity. In the film's most jarring sequences, Michal works at Nazi vaccine laboratory as a “feeder”, taping boxes of lice infected with typhus to his legs, sharing chit-chat with the other minimum wagers as Żuławski cuts to microscopic close-ups of the parasites sucking blood. It's a potent visual metaphor for the insidiousness of daily oppression.

Next up is Żuławski's second feature, The Devil, and the inception of Żuławski's tempestuous relationship with Polish authorities. Opening during the Prussian invasion of Poland in the 1790s, we first see a man known only as The Stranger () slipping past an ongoing prison siege. Once inside, through subterfuge and mischievous charm he manages to secure the release of Jakub (Leszek Teleszyński, once again), a man accused of attempting to assassinating the King, whom The Stranger ships home alongside a petrified nun (, also once again). What follows is a nightmarish odyssey, defined by sordid and depraved moments of confused identity and a deep-seated distrust of power. It's worth noting that the slight delay of this release came as a result of Eureka waiting for a new colour grade to be approved by Żuławski's regular cinematographer , a credit to their attention to detail across this collection.

On the Silver Globe
Courtesy of Eureka

Infamously, The Devil was banned by the Communist government in Poland, and wouldn't see release for a further fifteen years, presumably because Żuławski's vision of a cruel, iron-fisted state hit a little too close to home. Building on his work in The Third Part of the Night Żuławski captures the sheer wretchedness of a civilian population during a brute force invasion, tearing apart families only to bring them back together under insalubrious and often incestuous circumstances. Even more than his debut it's a surreal and slippery work, a rarely coherent and purposefully obtuse piece with a focus on atmosphere over narrative cogency.

All of that pales in comparison to this collection's crowning jewel, On the Silver Globe, a science-fiction epic that was only 80% finished when Janusz Wilhelmi, Polish vice-minister of cultural affairs, pulled the plug in 1977. Eight years later, Żuławski resumed production, shooting scenes of contemporary Poland over which he narrated the film's many missing scenes. The end result is arguably Żuławski's most confounding work, a film that reaches beyond our galaxy without escaping the pull of human impulse, telling a story about the hopeless cycle for greater meaning humans are inexorably locked in.

A straightforward account of the plot would be as long as it would be fruitless, but put simply the film centres on a group of astronauts who have left an ailing Earth, following their attempts to reconstruct a semblance of civilisation on an unwelcoming planet. Spanning multiple decades, generations, and focal characters, Żuławski makes full use of his remarkably high budget (estimated at at least least 58 million PLN) fusing on-location shooting with elaborate production design to turn Polish salt mines into bizarre orgiastic bunkers and barren beaches into areas of stark ritualistic power. Perhaps most compelling during an extended found footage section thanks to the personal perspective found there, this remains a must watch for anyone interested in the possibilities of arthouse cinema—even if Żuławski's tendency to lean on abstruse character dialogue to explain his metaphysical considerations robs it of some of its potency.

Taken as a whole, this Eureka collection is a fascinating portrait of a singular artist who has unfairly been defined by only his most famous work. The special features for The Third Part of the Night and The Devil are a little light, amounting to a few talking heads (insightful as they may be), but with On the Silver Globe the bonuses step up dramatically, with several new interviews and documentaries, as well as Kuba Mikurda fantastic feature length documentary on the film's troubled production. Possession fan or not, this is a must have for any self-respecting cinephile.

Special Features

  • Limited Edition Box Set [3000 Copies]
  • Limited Edition Hardbound Slipcase
  • All three films presented in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, using definitive digital restorations from 4K scans
  • Original mono audio tracks
  • Optional English Subtitles for all films, from translations by Daniel Bird and approved by director Andrzej Żuławski before his death in 2016
  • Escape to the Silver Globe (dir. Kuba Mikurda, 2021) – UK debut of the acclaimed documentary on the production history of On the Silver Globe
  • Brand new feature length audio commentary on On the Silver Globe by Daniel Bird
  • Michael Brooke on The Third Part of the Night + The Devil – two brand new interviews with film historian Michael Brooke
  • Lukasz Żulawski on The Devil – brand new interview
  • Adam Żulawski on Jerzy Żulawski – brand new interview
  • Return to the Silver Globe – 2019 footage of cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz revisiting the Polish salt mine used as a filming location for On the Silver Globe
  • The Cinematography of On the Silver Globe – new documentary by Daniel Bird
  • Lunar Futurism – new documentary by Daniel Bird
  • A Limited Edition 60-page collector's book featuring The Enigmas of Żulawski, a new essay by Philip Kemp; Unidentified Film Object, Daniel Bird's revised and edited notes for a presentation on the production history and restoration of On the Silver Globe; a new essay by Andrew Graves; a transcription from a 1979 samizdat journal criticising the official Polish coverage of On the Silver Globe; and an archival letter written by the crew of On the Silver Globe

The Eureka limited edition box set Andrzej Żuławski: Three Films releases in the UK on August 28th.