FEATURING: Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow
PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.
COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”
Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.
At that time (1971), a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.
Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the usual moldy historical drama. It may be set in the historic past, but its sensibilities are very much modern day and contemporary, as echoed in the cinematography and musical score.
Zulawski opens his film in the midst of chaos, and that’s the state where everyone remains in for the entire running time. There are no heroes here. The main character, Jakub, who normally would be the heroic figure, is broken and prone to seizures when first introduced, and almost everyone else in the film suffers some sort of syndrome, via betrayal, greed, incest… The performances are geared to an intensity that usually isn’t seen in the Western World. The description that’s usually used is “hysterical” (and that will be the last time the “H-word” will be brought up in this review). To audiences not used to seeing that level of intensity, the reaction is either laughter or incredulity. In context to the film, it puts across the concept of madness—and possibly “evil”—as a contagion, infecting everyone and anyone in sight.
Some of the more notable Zulawski traits show up here for the first time. Malgorzata Braunek (Zulawski’s wife at the time of production) writhes and contorts in a manner which will be very familiar to those who’ve seen Possession. There’s also the use of literary allusions integral to the story. Here, it’s Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” referenced directly in a couple of scenes in the film, and in spirit very much for the entire film.
The Devil usually gets classified in the horror genre when written about by Western reviewers, usually from the title and the diabolical goings-on (much as Possession‘s creature has it swept it into the same genre). That’s probably not inaccurate, if one broadens the definition of “horror,” although there’s no real supernatural occurrence until the end, and even then, it fits into the allegorical nature of the film.
Right now, the only DVD release available in Region 1 is the PolArt/Facets disc, which was not highly regarded in terms of image quality—but it’s that or nothing, in terms of convenience. A few years later, The Devil was part of a 3 disc release from SPI International, bundled as “The Polish Trilogy” along with The Third Part of the Night and On the Silver Globe. This all-region release is now out-of-print and fetches high prices.
Mondo Vision is scheduled to re-release “The Polish Trilogy,” but the earliest that may possibly happen is late 2016/2017. Judging from the quality of their previous releases, it’ll be worth the wait, but until then, the best way to watch The Devil is to find the PolArt disc.
For more about the movie’s historical background, this is a good guide.