Close Up

18 March 2016: Second Run: The Third Part of the Night


Following the recent passing away of extraordinaire filmmaker and novelist Andrzej Żuławski, we pay tribute to the enfant terrible of Polish cinema with a special screening of his debut feature The Third Part of the Night; presented by Mehelli Modi, founder of Second Run.

The Third Part of the Night
Andrzej Żuławski
1970 | 105 min | Colour | Digital

Andrzej Żuławski was one of the true mavericks of European cinema and his wild, imaginative and unique films have won awards at many international film festivals over the years. A nightmarish and surreal masterpiece, The Third Part of the Night is his highly influential debut feature film. Set during the time of the Nazi-occupation of Poland and rich with multilayered symbolism and apocalyptic imagery, it shows one of Europe's most uncompromising and visionary directors at his best.

"Trzecia czesc nocy (The Third Part of the Night, 1971) is a film [...] about the Polish experience, but one made by a filmmaker too young to remember the War. It was made in 1971, before the so-called Polish cinema of moral concern of Holland, Kieslowski and Zanussi. It is based (in part) on the life of Zuławski's father, Miroslaw, during the Second World War. It is perhaps the first (and probably the last) film about Weigl Institute in Lwow. But above all else, it is the debut film of one of cinema's true visionaries.

Filming of Trzecia czesc nocy took place in 1970. But Lwow, as both Andrzej and Miroslaw knew it, simply no longer existed. The Soviet army had re-entered Lwow in July 1944 and by 1970 the city, now called Lviv, had become part of the Ukraine. If shooting in Lviv was out of the question, Zuławski sought a Polish substitute; and Cracow presented itself as the most obvious choice. Ironically, twenty years later, Spielberg would go to Lviv to shoot sections of Schindler's List (1993) because it proved cheaper than Cracow.

Trzecia czesc nocy was produced by the Wektor film group, with Andrzej Wajda acting as guarantor. It was photographed by Witold Sobocinski and edited by Halina Prugar two of Wajda's regular collaborators. However, Zuławski put together a mostly young cast and crew. Michal, the film's protagonist, was played by Leszek Teleszynski, a young theatre actor from Cracow, in his film debut. The double role of Helena and Marta was played by Malgorzata Braunek, who was then a rising star in Polish film and theatre. Braunek had made her film debut in Witold Leszczynski's visually striking adaptation of Tarjei Vesaas The Birds, Zywot Mateusza (Matthew's Days, 1967) and had gone on to star in films by Kawalerowicz, Kutz and Wajda. Look closely for an un-credited appearance by Jerzy Stuhr, here making his film debut.

The Third Part of the Night opens with a reading from The Book of Revelations over a succession of landscape shots of earth, trees and grass. The title, drawn from The Seventh Seal, alerts us to Zuławski's metaphysical intentions this will not be like any other Polish war film. After the credits, we are introduced Michal, his wife Helena and their son, Lukasz. Not long after, both Helena and Lukasz are slaughtered by German soldiers on horseback. It's a brutal, disturbing scene full of incongruous imagery, such as the horse mounted soldiers riding inside the manor house. Helena greets one soldier with a trance like stare that appears to provoke the massacre. She stumbles outside her skin white, the blood on her face bright red only to be gunned down in front of Michal. The original Polish press book for Trzecia czesc nocy interspersed solarised stills from the film with details from Durer's Apocalypse. This sequence, along with the four angels (distorted through glass in the final shot of the film) explicitly correlates the Polish experience with biblical imagery with a confidence only paralleled by Tarkovsky's Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, 1962).

A strong sense of style can be discerned in Trzecia czesc nocy: long tracking shots; predominant wide-angle compositions, usually from below looking up (ceilings and the heavens are always in frame); two people locked in dialogue are rarely covered by the usual tête-à-tête back and forth between facial close-ups, as Zuławski favours dynamic mid-shots capturing both speakers, profile shots that turn into portraits, or the simple twisting of the focus ring, making sharp one of two speakers adjacent to the camera. Unlike Miklos Jansco, there is never a sense that Zuławski is adhering to a formal strategy, nor has this "style" become an affectation (yet), as it could be argued to be the case in Tarkovsky's later films. Rather, Trzecia czesc nocy is both simple and slick, possessing the formal qualities of an auteur film as well as the glossiness of a Hollywood flick.

According to Zuławski, whilst Wajda didn't approve of the elliptical narrative of Trzecia czesc nocy, he didn't interfere with the film. Wajda recognised Zuławski as a new voice, just as he had recognised that of Polanski ten years previously." – Daniel Bird

Daniel Bird's complete essay, from which these brief extracts are taken, appears in the booklet of the Second Run DVD release.