Overview: A man is rescued from prison by a strange character who leads him through a dark look at his life. Facets Media; 1972; Not Rated; 119 minutes.
Sophomore Effort: The Devil is Andrezj Żuławski’s second film and the first to be a victim of censorship by the Polish government, having been banned for 16 years for its political statements. The film opens on a fiery ordeal in 1793 Poland. A scattering frenzy of soldiers and bloody screams greet the viewer as we’re led into a world of oppression. At the end of a war to protect the constitution from the Russian invasion, The Polish Commonwealth ultimately lost a total of 307,000 km² of territory to its enemies. Though set in the 16th century, The Devil is a thinly-veiled commentary on the political landscape of the country at the time of filming, when the communist government provoked students into a protest against censorship in order to crack down on dissent. Much like Nixon’s drug war to strike on minorities and hippies, it was a planned political move that left lasting consequences for decades. Though it is biting to call this example of fear, anger, and oppression timeless, it has existed before and will continue to exist in the face of tyranny.
And so we meet Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski), a nobleman with an extremely noble brow locked up in a prison that more resembles an asylum. Nuns, soldiers, and civilians alike flail about in the ensuing madness. One can imagine Żuławski told everyone on set to just “go for it” and they took him very seriously. Immediately it’s hard to know where to look in the insanity and panic, until Jakub is rescued by the man in black (Wiktor Sadecki, our devil in practice). Who is this stranger, and why does he save Jakub? As the flames lick the walls and explosions are heard in the distance, they escape on horseback with an orphan nun who serves mostly as a holy spectator while the devil takes Jakub on a guided tour of his own personal hell. At each stage of the film, Jakub encounters a living nightmare, cut with abrupt transitions leading him only to more destruction. As the camera spins upon his first encounter of a theatre troupe practicing highwire (and eventually Hamlet as a tragic literary parallel to Jakub’s experience) we enter what feels like a medicated dream full of riddles. Jakub is a ghost for us to imprint ourselves on as he stumbles through the next two hours in a daze. We witness him fail to cope with the loss of everything in his life, eventually concluding with the loss of his own mind.
Żuławskian Horror: With large margin for interpretation, more than anything this film gives an interesting portrayal of the devil. Instead of cunning, he is desperate, manic, and unpredictable. What Jakub thinks and how he treats him is important to him. He seems to even care, at times. He weeps like a spoiled child crying, “I am at your service but you have abandoned me!” The man in black is the devil who tries to reason with man, one who isn’t afraid of the dirty work. More than anything he is pathetic; no force to be reckoned with. He does his job only for the favor of others and delivers the obscene humour of the film through one-liners. When we discover his motive for the rescue of Jakub, it’s easy to feel both pity and hate for all he has said and done. After all, in the end he reveals he’s just always wanted to be a dancer.
Women, on the other hand, are not shown in the best light. Though this can generally be argued for most of Zulawski’s films, The Devil felt particularly difficult to swallow with its portrayal of women that seems to lack his signature complexity. Here women are only saints or whores, a constant temptation looked upon with fear or repulsion. Jakub discovers his lover has been impregnated by an imposter. His sister is engaged in an incestuous relationship with their half brother. His mother became a successful madam after abandoning the family. Jakub’s reactions to these devastations are properly Żuławskian. His reaction to seeing his ex-fiancee making love to someone else is like a seizure, painfully felt. Upon their reunion, their physical reactions to one another are grotesque and flying over the top. His reaction to seeing his mother is bizarre, tricking her into thinking he’s a john so he can shame her and “kill the mother of god inside of her”. For once, these performances feel melodramatic to a fault that causes the narrative to suffer.
In the face of all that he is shown, Jakub loses his mind and begins to engage in random acts of gory violence. The horror of these killings and mad ramblings is punctuated with percussion, a soundtrack with a staccato vibe that reminds the viewer of the urgency of the story even when the threads get tangled and lost. At one moment it seems tribal and wild as the nobleman dance to a mysterious cult-like tune, at another a Jew’s harp brings a nervous gaiety as Jakub thrashes through his ruined childhood home. The Devil is like a bucket of marbles that’s been spilled down a steep hill. There’s no way to get them all back or see where they’ve gone. In the end, it’s hard to care where half of them end up and we’re left to find satisfaction in the few we’ve stashed in our pockets.
Overall: With the cult success of Possession, there’s no reason for viewers to ignore the rest of Żuławski’s work. His love affair with philosophical statements and monologues abounds here just as it does in his other films. If this is something you appreciate, there are moments of deep thought to be found. As always, his work can take patience to admire.
Featured Image: Facets Media