Saturday, April 30, 2016


After the reception of The Devil (1972) drove director Andrzej Zuławski out of Poland and into France, he didn’t make another feature film for three years, apparently filling his days in Paris with work as a writer. And though he spent a significant amount of time in the country as a student, his first French feature, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), feels more like a generally European film and less specifically like a French one. Perhaps this is due to the melting pot of cast and crew members, namely the involvement of Austrian arthouse star Romy Schneider, Italian action and crime film star Fabio Testi, the incomparable Klaus Kinski in one of his greatest performances, and Zuławski’s genius camera operator (and frequent cinematographer) Andrzej Jaroszewicz. Perhaps this — along with the film’s central themes of love and longing — is also due to the fact that L’important c’est d’aimer was made by an exile, a man separated from his wife and young child.

While I don’t necessarily think it’s his most accomplished work from a technical perspective, against the odds L’important c’est d’aimer — which is generally translated as The Most Important Thing: Love or The Most Important Thing is to Love — seems to be my favorite of all Zuławski’s films. I say against the odds because by all rights my favorite should be The Third Part of the Night (1971), an absurdist horror drama set during the apocalyptic Nazi occupation of Poland. (To be fair, that’s my second favorite, and you can read my worshipful essay on it here.)

In many ways, L’important c’est d’aimer is the complete opposite of The Third Part of the Night: Zuławski’s first film with a contemporary setting, at its heart it’s a melodrama. And unlike the majority of his films, it has a straightforward narrative. It’s arguably the most accessible film of the first 20 years of his career as a filmmaker, a definite outlier up until maybe 1991’s La note bleue (another of my favorites, of course).

Loosely based on Christopher Frank’s novel La nuit américaine (renamed to avoid being confused with Truffaut’s La nuit américaine from 1973), the film follows the seemingly ill-fated relationship between a photographer, Servais (Testi), and a down on her luck actress, Nadine (Schneider). Though she longs for a legitimate acting career, she is forced to support herself by appearing in cheap sexploitation films because her immature husband, Jacques (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), spends all his time and money collecting photographs of famous actresses. Servais, who occasionally works as a photographer on porn shoots for a lower-level gangster, borrows money from his employer to partially bankroll an avant garde production of Richard III, with the guarantee that Nadine will be cast in the lead female role. Tensions between Servais, Nadine, and Jacques soon come to a head, setting in motion tragic events.

Among cult film circles — whether we’re talking arthouse, exploitation, or horror films — “melodrama” often feels like a dirty word and has essentially become a pejorative describing a work as shallow or frivolous. But in Thomas Elsaesser’s seminal essay, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” he argues that melodrama possesses a “radical ambiguity” and the ability to be powerfully subversive. My background is actually in theater history (due to a perhaps ill-advised obsession with both Georg Büchner and August Strindberg) and I’d love to launch into a discussion of the origins of melodrama in the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way from The Beggar’s Opera (1728) to The Bells (1871), but suffice it to say that Merriam Webster defines melodrama as “drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions.” Additionally, whether we’re talking about film, drama, or literature, these two constants are joined by a tendency towards somewhat unbelievable coincidence in terms of plot and a sense of strongly polarized morals.

Zuławski was never one for black and white views of morality, preferring a level of greyscale that I think is what makes him so uncomfortable for so many viewers and thus so overlooked. Like many of the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, arguably the greatest melodramatist of his generation, L’important c’est d’aimer’s chief strength lies in the fact that it is at once an exceptional work of melodrama — for instance, the heart-wrenching score from prolific French composer George Delerue is the only thing in existence that can make me cry on command — and also a masterful subversion of the genre. The film’s primary romantic act is a suicide and there is a certain irony to the fact that its central romantic relationship is never consummated, despite the fact that both members of the couple work in pornography and there is frequent sex and nudity throughout the film.

Elsaesser writes that, “what is typical of this form of melodrama is that the characters’ behavior is often pathetically at variance with the real objectives they want to achieve. A sequence of substitute actions creates a kind of vicious circle in which the close nexus of cause and effect is somehow broken and-in an often overtly Freudian sense-displaced” (79). This sentiment particularly applies to Nadine, who is trapped between an unfulfilling marriage and a disappointing career, neither allowing her to escape from the other. Schneider, whose performance revitalized her career and won her the inaugural César for Best Actress, looks truly exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown. Nadine’s husband, so obsessed with starlets, prefers the fantasy presented by his posters and film stills to living with a real actress and is unable to provide her with emotional, sexual, or financial support.

This stalemate is broken by the appearance of Servais in one of Zuławski’s many great “love at first sight” scenes, where a character is instantly transformed by the simple act of viewing a second character, a moment that will permanently alter the course of events. In his essay “The Sacred Conspiracy,” Georges Bataille wrote, “Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love” (Visions of Excess, 179). Ecstasy in this case does not merely mean a sense of euphoria or bliss, but is akin to a religious or mystical experience, one in which the subject enters a trancelike state and the self is, even temporarily, transcended.

If Zuławski’s films have any sort of consistent moral message, it seems to be that people are unhappy, but they don’t deserve to be — something he says almost verbatim in the commentary for Possession — and his plots often loosely follow a metaphorical ascent from the underworld. While some of his later films show characters escaping this misery and attempting to transform themselves through art — cinema in La femme publique, writing and music in La note bleue, photography in La fidélité, and so on — love seems to be the purest, though most painful, means to complete this alchemical process.

In the case of the melodramatic, or even conventional, hero, Servais is a curious, subversive example. Elsaesser explains that, “one of the typical features of the classical Hollywood movie has been that the hero was defined dynamically, as the centre of a continuous movement” (80). Servais, on the other hand, is almost pathologically passive for such a stereotypically macho male lead, a part for which Fabio Testi was perfectly cast, despite the unlikeliness of him starring in an arthouse melodrama. He is a pornographer (if perhaps reluctantly) and something of a lothario, but is unwilling to or incapable of pursuing a loveless sexual relationship with Nadine.

As a photographer, he records life rather than encountering it directly (much like the lead character of Zuławski’s later La fidélité), and spends much of the film spectating the action from empty theater seats, inspiring Nadine to call him the “Phantom.” Pygmalion-type relationships exist frequently in Zuławski’s films and though Servais encourages Nadine in her career — seemingly more than anyone else ever has — he resists forming this type of bond, generally remaining a mute witness rather than a motivational force. His intervention in her life is actually one of the ways in which the book and film differ. In Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin’s Shakespeare on Screen, she writes, “In the book, he himself writes the script; in the film, he agrees to bankroll Laurent Messala’s production of Richard III because he will cast Nadine as Lady Anne, ‘one of the best female roles ever” (81). This primarily financial participation is connected with one of the film’s main themes of moral and artistic prostitution.

While all the characters prostitute themselves to varying degrees, Servais seems to genuinely want nothing in exchange from Nadine. He effectively ends the film in a parallel to his opening scene where he first snuck onto the softcore set to photograph Nadine, had to bribe a member of the crew, and was beaten for his troubles. At the end of the film he is effectively bankrupted by financing Richard III for her and – in a traditionally melodramatic coincidence – is badly beaten by his former mob associates. Though by all rights they should have killed him, he is left alive, bleeding and crying on the floor.

There is something fundamentally childlike and naive about both Servais and Nadine, which heightens the contrast between innocent romantic love and sexual exploitation that is at the core of the film. Nadine’s real drive is not just a struggle to find a fulfilling love, but an almost existential struggle to comprehend love itself. At one point she breaks down in a café, smashing a glass (one of Zuławski’s often used visual tropes), and telling Jacques that “I love you means nothing.” Out of all the characters of L’important c’est d’aimer, her personal journey is perhaps the most profound, and, unlikely the majority of Zuławski’s heroines, she is even given a completely unexpected happy ending.

As with Servais, her actions in the opening and closing scenes have a direct parallel to each other. In the beginning of the film, Servais encounters her on a film set, in the middle of a scene where she is straddling a bleeding man. She is commanded to deliver her dialogue, “I love you,” but cannot bring herself to convincingly do so and begins to cry when Servais’ takes her picture. By the end of the film, she is leaning over a bloody, beaten Servais and is able to say, without hesitation and with much genuine depth of meaning, “I love you.”

A major change that Zuławski made from Christopher Frank’s novel is actually the role of Jacques, her husband, and the weight of the love triangle, Zuławski’s favorite dramatic structure. While Jacques is barely present in the novel, he has a greatly elevated importance here and the dynamic between photographer, model/actress, and cinephile/photograph collector is an elegant one that places a nearly equal emphasis on the twin themes of art and love. Of course, they are not trafficking in the “high” art of La femme publique or La note bleue, or the commercial world of La fidélité. In a sense, L’important c’est d’aimer is so subversive because it inserts the trappings of a conventional, bourgeois melodrama into the squalid world of pornography.

It’s likely that Zuławski was slyly commenting on some of the changes in French cinema during this period. The recently relaxed censorship laws allowed filmmakers to include increased amounts of nudity and softcore sex, resulting in titles like Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974) and The Story of O (1975). These ushered in dozens of imitators that veered further and further from arthouse sensibilities and closer to low budget pornography. One of the film’s most shocking, unexpected moments actually occurs when Servais leaves the exploitation set where he first spies Nadine, and finds his way to a hardcore porn shoot, where it is revealed that he is actually late for work. Later, some of Nadine’s films are discussed – the titled bandied about the most is Nymphocula – and Nadine’s soon-to-be costar on Richard III (Kinski) enthusiastically recognizes the title and describes the plot as, “Two dykes in a castle with a dwarf!” He asserts that Nadine is “great” in the film.

Zuławski – who himself featured a liveried, Jew’s harp-playing dwarf in The Devil – seems less to be taking a pot shot at exploitation cinema and more the cult of obsession and fascination that surrounds actresses in general. He makes no distinction between Nymphocula and the exploitative power of mainstream cinema as represented by Jacques’ picture collection and his slavish devotion to fantasy over reality. This jab at the cult of the actress is almost ironic – and is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek – considering that Zuławski’s prowess as a director is largely bound up in his relationships with lead actresses, causing several of them to win major European filmmaking awards.

The hysterical, liberating, and almost physically unbelievable performances he wrenched from many of his lead actresses – such as his first wife Małgorzata Braunek, Isabelle Adjani, Valerie Kaprisky, longtime partner Sophie Marceau, and Iwona Petry – is perhaps more subtly expressed by Schneider, though she is no less impactful. In interviews, Zuławski occasionally spoke about how he convinced actresses to physically transform themselves, to shed conventional notions of beauty in favor of raw emotion that often made them appear ugly: Braunek’s horrible contortions, Adjani’s ecstatic vomiting, and Marceau’s snotty, swollen, and tear-streaked face. While Schneider escaped many of these physical injustices, he convinced her to abandon the thick layers of makeup that she felt preserved her youthful appearance (she was in her mid-‘30s during filming, though Nadine claims to be 30). In some sense, Nadine is ugly and despicable because she is so helpless, utterly adrift in a world where she is unable to either find a solid mooring or take responsibility for herself.

This provides a tangible link with her character in Richard III, Lady Anne. Historically, Anne is one of England’s more ignored queens, given shockingly little agency compared to women like Margaret of Anjou or Elizabeth Woodville. In Richard III, Anne is seduced by Richard over a corpse; not that of her husband, as is widely misunderstood, but over her father-in-law, though her husband is also recently dead. Despite being physically deformed, Richard undertakes a seduction of Anne defined by mannered speech, as he is a brilliant orator, and surprising sexual excess in Act 1, Scene 2. He says beautiful things to her, such as “Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep/ To undertake the death of all the world,/ So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.” For Richard, this seduction is essentially another social mask — a favorite theme of Zuławski’s — one that allows him to exceed his vision of himself as “deformed, unfinished.”

While there are notable parallels between L’important c’est d’aimer and Richard III, Servais’s seduction of Nadine could not be more different than Richard’s seduction of Anne. Instead of providing a parallel between the two male leads, Zuławski uses the theatrical production — and the play that it so flamboyantly adapts, with a performance from Kinski that must be seen to be believed — as an important contrast. The use of theater that began in The Devil with Hamlet would figure strongly into all Zuławski’s films for at least the next decade.

Here Richard III seems primarily to function as a way to foreshadow the death of a husband and the subsequent seduction of his wife. Jacques’ ultimate sacrifice — a romantic act of suicide, rather than murder as in Shakespeare — is referenced several times before it actually occurs. Upon meeting Servais for the first time, Jacques mutters into Nadine’s ear, “I dreamt you were pouring Coca Cola in my ear. A nasty death!” This Hamlet reference indicates not only his impending death by poison, but also the central love triangle, as, like Richard III, Hamlet features a subplot about a man killing another man and then seducing his widow. During rehearsals for Richard III, the director of the play, Messala (Guy Mairesse), is unable to get the performance he wants out of Nadine and convinces Jacques, who happens to be on set, to lay in the coffin in the hope that it will inspire her.

Jacques’ actual death — agonizingly painful suicide by rat poison in a public bathroom — is not an act of violence or tragedy, but one of intense love. Suicide is a recurring theme in Zuławski’s films and it is often represented as a pathway to liberation. In this case, Jacques frees Nadine from self-imposed but steadfast bonds. In Bataille’s Guilty, he wrote, “Eroticism is the brink of the abyss. I’m leaning out over deranged horror (at this point my eyes roll back in my head). The abyss is the foundation of the possible. We’re brought to the edge of the same abyss by uncontrolled laughter or ecstasy. From this comes a ‘questioning’ of everything possible. This is the stage of rupture, of letting go of things, of looking forward to death” (109). L’important c’est d’aimer concludes with this great letting go, perhaps an unconventional but unequivocally happy ending, one that would not see its like in any of Zuławski’s film until Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), his love letter to Sophie Marceau that ends with the suicide of a couple.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Bill Bain, 1972
Starring: Vanessa Howard, Mona Washbourne, Paul Nicholas

A horrible young man, John, tries to rob his grandmother of her fortune and home… by scaring her to death. He enlists his sociopathic girlfriend Jill to help him convince Granny that a dangerous, ageist gang is kidnapping and murdering the elderly throughout England. Through the use of fake or purposefully misinterpreted news and TV broadcasts, as well as “secret” conversations she’s not meant to overhear and strange phone calls, they successfully goad her into a fatal heart attack, not suspecting that Granny might have some surprises of her own.

Bizarrely PG-rated, this film is probably the most obscure of all Amicus’s horror film titles, though I can’t quite figure out why. Based on Laurence Moody’s novel The Ruthless Ones, it’s actually a coproduction with Palomar Pictures, a US company, and is one of several examples of the US chipping in funds to British genre films in the early ‘70s. Part of its obscurity is almost certainly due to the fact that it was completely ignored by British theaters, though it was marketed as an exploitation film in the US. It certainly lacks the fun, breezy, and often tongue-in-cheek tone of Amicus’s anthology films and has more in common with the stark yet restrained rash of chillers that Hammer made in 1972, like Demons of the Mind, Fear in the Night, and Straight on Till Morning. There is a decidedly nasty tone – it’s definitely Amicus’s most nihilistic film – and does have a little bit of an exploitation movie feel, as John and Jill’s plan to do away with his grandmother is almost absurdly complex and incredibly mean-spirited. 

At its heart, this is actually quite a conservative morality tale. Unlike Hammer or Tigon, Amicus is actually full of stories about unlikable people being hoisted on their own petards and though this is a more unusual example, it fits in with various segments from portmanteau films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden, and The House That Dripped Blood, where nefarious protagonists are served up Grand Guignol-style punishments. This is also essentially a gas-lighting film — where one character is slowly, subtly driven insane by one or more perpetrators — but it is one of the most atypical examples of this subgenre, beaten in the utter weirdness category only by something like Vittorio De Sica’s The Condemned of Altona (1962).

What Became of Jack and Jill? actually skirts a number of subgenres. In addition to being a gas-lighting film, it’s an interesting twist on the “evil child” subgenre. Though its characters are more or less adults – and engage in some off-screen sexual activity — they have the selfishness and emotional maturity of much younger children. But it has nothing on either Hammer’s Demons of the Mind, where two similarly aged and equally childlike young adults are trapped in mental prisons of their family’s doing, or the excellent Straight on Till Morning, another film about maladjusted dreamers so firmly entrenched in their respective fantasy worlds that violence is inevitable. 

This is also one of many disgruntled British films from the period about out of control youth, which you can find in everything from Dracula A.D. 1972 and Psychomania to These are the Damned. Clearly made by some unsympathetic adults, this is a scathing attack on England’s youthful citizens, the backlash of the hippie movement, and the widespread crusades of social rebellion that took hold in the late ‘60s all across Europe and the US. It’s also interesting to watch this film in a time when so many people complain about entitled youth, as the villains of What Became of Jack and Jill? are motivated purely by parasitic greed.

Though it has some fantasy elements, almost in a cheap rip off of Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) — including a weird Nazi death squad fantasy and another where John imagines himself gunning down his grandmother — this is firmly entrenched in reality. SPOILERS: Gran gets the last laugh, though John and Jill manage to drive her to her death. It is revealed that merely weeks ago, she added a provision to her will that in order for John to fully inherit her estate, he must be married… but to someone other than Jill. John and Jill try to stay together and survive in near poverty despite this, but the tension drives them to violence.

What a strange film. I can’t recommend it without some reservations, mostly because it’s hard for me to think of What Became of Jack and Jill? without continually wishing I was watching Straight on Till Morning, the latter of which is one of my favorite films. With that said, it’s worth watching at least once, though you’re going to have a time finding it on DVD. Until its eventual release (and hopefully remastering, since the available prints look like total garbage), it’s fairly easy to find on Youtube or in bootleg form online.

Monday, April 25, 2016


While many genre cinema and cult movie fans are familiar with the wealth of titles coming out of European countries like France, Italy, and Spain, Greece is certainly one of the more neglected cinematic locales on the continent. But thanks to the great Mondo Macabro, lovers of weird movies can add a new entry to what it is admittedly a short, but fascinating list with this release of writer-director George Lazopoulos' Μέδουσα or Medousa (1998), a surprisingly contemporary entry in the label’s roster of obscure but indispensable cult films. A blend of horror, fantasy, and crime drama, Medousa is a dreamlike thriller that nearly defies description and richly deserves a wider audience.

A knife-throwing enthusiast with a complicated past, the young Perseas (Thanos Amorginos) is the leader of a small band of thieves in Athens who habitually rob empty homes when their wealthy owners are temporarily away. His frequently rebuffed girlfriend Katia (Vana Rambota) learns that he is determined to discover what happened to his mother (the mesmerizing though only briefly seen Eleni Filini), who disappeared when he was a young teen. He is disturbed by strange memories of a faceless woman with beautiful black hair and soon locates the countryside home she has been occupying, leading his gang there at the same time that local police discover the apparently petrified bodies of missing men, who all seem to have been turned to stone…

 Greek mythology is a fertile ground for genre cinema — replete with monsters, gods, strange supernatural beings, family trauma, and often horrific acts of violence — but it’s sadly underrepresented outside fantasy films. Though there are some fantastic arthouse examples, such as Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) or Pasolini’s Medea (1969), there are few horror films that mine similar territory. Those that do exist, like the underrated The Gorgon (1964) from Britain's Hammer Studios, bear very little relationship to actual Greek myths. Medousa, on the other hand, attempts a modernized retelling of the myth that pits Perseus, Greek mythology’s greatest early hero, against the Gorgon Medusa. Hideously ugly, winged, and with writhing serpents for hair, she is one of three sisters, underworld beings whose purpose changed throughout the centuries. Later Greeks, such as Ovid, described her as beautiful and wove in a rape-revenge aspect to the tale, while Freud described her as the physical manifestation of castration anxiety.

Medousa’s chief strength is perhaps that it makes the most of its strange, surreal tone and striking visuals. The film has a compelling sense of mystery and even — like I assume most people are — you know the mythic story, it’s often not clear what will unfold and the film’s plot is generally hard to get a solid grasp on. As a child, Perseas’s father figure seems to be a knife thrower in a cabaret-like carnival and as an adult, he takes up this practice, throwing blades at poster reproductions of famous paintings. In addition to a number of distractingly beautiful women, Perseas’s relationship with them is often fraught. His memories of his mother are tinged with erotic longing, while his girlfriend is coldly neglected for much of the running time.

Admittedly, it is quite different from other Greek genre cinema, in the sense that it makes it hard to place within a specific national tradition. It’s (thankfully) a far cry from Kostas Karagiannis’s Land of the Minotaur (1976), a Greek production shot in English with British actors like Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which is essentially a campy riff on British folk horror with a cult of minotaur worshippers instead of Satanists. It’s similarly unlike Nico Mastorakis’s spin on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Island of Death (1976), an exploitation film also shot in English about British tourists who travel to the Greek isles to indulge in an orgy of torture and violence. If it has any loose contemporaries, a film like Crystal Nights (1992) — a WWII-set surreal drama-romance with themes of telepathy and reincarnation — comes closest.

Like Crystal Nights, Medousa is short on exposition and there is plenty about the film that will frustrate viewers looking for a more straightforward plot and conclusion. Some things are never explained — such as the origin of the creature — and characters come and go with little resolution. A woman whose face is never seen keeps masks hanging in her closet, a young girl obsessed with taking Polaroids leaves Perseas the only keepsake of his mother, and the knife thrower who helped raise him are barely sketched out in the script. But this is the source of much of the film’s charm and it’s rare to come across a genre film that’s so delightfully difficult to define.

And if Medousa reminds me of any other horror films at all, it’s actually the small wave of strange, surreal, occult-themed movies from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, several of which involved Clive Barker, titles like Angel Heart (1987), Nightbreed (1990), Candyman (1992), Nadja (1994), or Lord of Illusions (1995). Like a lot of those films, there are so many leather jackets on display and the characters tend to be young adults existing in a subculture and/or on the fringes of society. The collection of misfits that surround Perseas are strangely fascinating, despite the fact that they have little dialogue or screen time, and director George Lazopoulos builds a convincing, if shadowy world that seems to exist just beneath the surface of our own.

Medousa comes highly recommended and though it won’t be for everyone, I’ve really fallen in love with it. Mondo Macabro have done a wonderful job rescuing it from obscurity, though it was made a bit later than their typical fare, and I hope they manage to unearth more unusual Greek cinema in the future. There are some nice special features included, such as an interview on the making of the film with Lazopoulos and another with lead actor Thanos Amorginos, who is a musician that Lazopoulos discovered in a bar and convinced to star in the film. Despite his obvious lack of experience, he’s strangely perfect for the role. Also included is a trailer for the film.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 4

The fourth episode of the podcast I'm co-hosting is now up!

From the Diabolique site:

In the fourth episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm begin a four-part discussion of the career of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski. Meant to be a celebration of his life and incredible work, the episode begins with a brief discussion of his early years, particularly his training as an assistant director under Andrzej Wajda. This is followed by a discussion of his two short films for Polish television, The Story of Triumphant Love (1969) and Pavoncello (1969), two lesser seen and perhaps more conventional works, where he established a number of the themes he would use throughout his career: love triangles, troubled romance, hysterical women, literary source material, and dizzying staircase sequences.

This is followed by a lengthy exploration of his first feature-length film, The Third Part of the Night (1971), which was co-written by Zuławski’s father, Mirosław, and is loosely based on the elder Zuławski’s experiences working in a typhus lab during the Nazi occupation. The episode wraps up with a look at The Devil (1972), Zuławski’s unhinged second feature, a film that was promptly banned by the communist government and resulted in Zuławski’s departure from Poland and relocation to France. Set during the period of German occupation in Poland in the late eighteenth century, the film follows the homeward odyssey of a troubled young man who is released from prison by a mysterious stranger.

Andrzej Zuławski's Short Films

About a month ago, I began what was supposed to be a short retrospective on the recently restored early Polish films of Andrzej Zuławski – The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Silver Globe, followed by an essay on his recent, final film, Cosmos – but in light of the director’s recent passing, I realized (and was perhaps persuaded) that I couldn’t stop there, as the majority of his films have received such little critical attention. Therefore, welcome to the continuation of my retrospective on Zuławski’s films. This week I’m going to go all the way back to his early years, specifically his first two works as a director, the roughly 30-minute short films Piesn triumfujacej milosci (1969) aka The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello (1969).

These films were made in the wake of a number of years working as an assistant to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, a role that he held for much of the ‘60s. Zuławski served as assistant director on Samson (1961), where he also had a small acting role, as second unit director on Wajda’s contribution to the anthology film Love at 20 (1962), titled “Warsaw,” and assistant director on The Ashes (1965). It’s also worth noting that he went on to assistant direct Anatole Litvak’s UK-French coproduction, The Night of the Generals (1967), a crime film about the murder of a prostitute set during WWII. While it starred big name actors like Peter O’Toole, Omar Shariff, and Donald Pleasence, the film was shot in Warsaw, which seems a curious choice for the Cold War years.

After putting in his time as an assistant, it was perhaps inevitable that – like so many other fledging arthouse directors – Zuławski would make at least one short film before progressing to feature length works. Both shorts were actually commissioned for Polish television, apparently as part of a series adapting works of classic literature. According to Zuławski scholar Daniel Bird, they were shot in 35mm color, but then broadcast in black and white for television, which explains why they appear to be black and white films (and are even listed as such on IMDB). At first glance, neither The Story of Triumphant Love nor Pavoncello feel particularly like they belong in Zuławski’s distinctive canon, as they exhibit a decidedly more conventional approach to filmmaking. But both films contain a number of the thematic and visual tropes that would reappear throughout his career and deserve to be rediscovered. 

The Story of Triumphant Love features Zuławski’s most constant dramatic structure, the love triangle, as it follows the melancholic reunion of three friends. Mucjusz (Piotr Wysocki of Wajda’s The Ashes) travels to the mansion of his old friend, Fabiusz (Andrzej May). There is tension between the two men, because years ago Mucjusz was in love with the beautiful Waleria (Beata Tyszkiewicz, also of The Ashes), who ultimately married Fabiusz. Despite Mucjusz’s claims that he has found love with many women during his international adventures, it is obvious that passion remains between he and Waleria. During a dinner party celebrating Mucjusz’s return, he and his servant Malaj (Jerzy Jogalla) perform “The Song of Love,” a tune that Mucjusz claims can make a lover capable of seemingly impossible feats.

The Story of Triumphant Love is based on a story by 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, which actually bears more in common with the work of Turgenev’s close friend, French writer Gustav Flaubert, to whom it is dedicated. Unusually for Turgenev, it lacks a Russian setting and instead takes place in a fairytale-like interpretation of medieval Italy, complete with elements of Gothic literature: troubled romance, erotic nightmares, manipulative male characters preying on weak female ones, and hints of the supernatural. Over the years, Zuławski frequently turned to works of literature as the inspiration for his feature films and he remains one of the most accomplished literary adapters in all of cinema, often turning to texts that other directors might consider unapproachable (like Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos).

His adaptation of The Story of Triumphant Love is perhaps surprisingly conventional and even wistfully romantic, compared to his later films. It has more in common with some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations from the ‘60s and even something like Fellini’s Poe adaptation Toby Dammit, made for the anthology film Histoires extraordinares (1968) aka Spirits of the Dead. Though the cinematography – from The Saragossa Manuscript’s Mieczyslaw Jahoda – was not intentionally black and white, this adds to the Gothic mood, which is also enhanced by one of my favorite pieces of music from Zuławski’s lifelong collaborator, composer Andrzej Korzynski. The central musical theme highlights a reoccurring sequence where Waleria rises from bed, seemingly in a trance, and walks through the moonlit garden to find Mucjusz. Korzynski uses mournful violins and subtle, if unusual percussion, and includes vocals that first sounds like howling wolves but soon transition into a woman singing.

Like Zuławski’s later horror-tinged films such as The Devil (1972) or Possession (1981), The Story of Triumphant Love could not actually be described as a genre film, but includes themes of sleepwalking, nightmares, sudden acts of violence, and inexplicable events. In Turgenev’s story, it is implied that Muzzio (as he is originally known) has not just returned with exotic treasures and enchanting tales, but has actually acquired some sort of mystical or supernatural power and that he is trying to cast a spell on Waleria. Turgenev writes, “Valeria did not quickly fall asleep; there was a faint and languid fever in her blood and a slight ringing in her ears … from that strange wine, as she supposed, and perhaps too from Muzzio’s stories, from his playing on the violin … towards morning she did at last fall asleep, and she had an extraordinary dream.” It is implied that in the dream she is raped by Muzzio and she becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses. Later she describes another dream about “a sort of monster which was trying to tear me to pieces.”

The major divergence between Turgenev’s story and Zuławski’s film lies in this issue of romantic intention and sexual consent. While Turgenev describes the attempted supernatural seduction of an unwilling woman, Zuławski’s Waleria appears to want to run away with Mucjusz, despite also loving her husband, but is prevented from doing so because he reveals that he is dying of leprosy. The film concludes with Mucjusz’s “death,” where he manipulates a jealous Fabiusz into fatally stabbing him after Waleria wanders, in yet another trance, to his bedside. But, as Mucjusz promised earlier, “The Song of Love” has unexpected powers and he rises, seemingly changed, to mount his horse and have his servant lead him far from Fabiusz’s country estate.

While Pavoncello, his follow up, has an equally desolate ending as well as other thematic similarities, it is remarkably different in tone. Also set in a romantic, fictionalized Italy – albeit during the turn of the century – Pavoncello follows the fortunes of the titular violinist (Stefan Friedmann of Wajda’s Landscape After Battle), who is fired from his position as musical accompanist at a local cinema when he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Zinayda (Joanna Kasperska). Taking pity on him, she hires him on the spot to give her violin lessons, though she insists that they must take place that night. To his surprise, he is forced to perform at the dinner party of her wealthy husband (Mieczyslaw Milecki), an important diplomat who is ill and confined to a wheelchair, and who seems displeased with the violinist’s presence.

While The Story of Triumphant Love is quite faithful to its source material, Pavoncello is a bit of a departure from Stefan Zeromski’s short story of the same name. Though he may not be familiar to English-speaking audiences, Zeromski was an important Romantic novelist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works have been adapted by other Polish directors, namely in Wajda’s Popioły (1965) aka The Ashes andWalerian Borowczyk’s Dzieje grzechu (1975) aka Story of Sin. Pavoncello is a bit more mean-spirited than Zuławski’s films typically are, but he also made the protagonist considerably more down-to-earth than the preening peacock of Zeromski’s tale, who is widely regarded as one of the most handsome men in all of Rome.

Zuławski’s musical protagonist, named Ernesto but nicknamed Pavoncello, is far more of an every-man figure whose main function seems to be struggling with love, linking him with the lead characters of films like The Third Part of the Night, L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, and La fidélité. The real centerpiece of the film is Joanna Kasperska’s Zinayda, who is arguably the first of Zuławski’s hysterical female characters. Unlike Waleria of The Story of Triumphant Love, who wanders through much of the film as if in a trance, Zinayda is alluring, coquettish, and a force of (ultimately destructive) nature. She’s so moved by Ernesto’s violin music that she smashes a glass on the floor — a trope repeated several times throughout Zuławski’s films — and dances rather inappropriately. She insists that he dance with her, right under her husband’s nose, and then winds up spinning in circles in the middle of a very tightly-laced, upper class party full of disapproving diplomats in tuxedos. She actually forces a number of them to follow behind her in a sort of insane conga line as well laughs hysterically — none of which bodes well for the poor violinist.

The film’s twist is actually quite nasty and — though you could make a possible case for Szamanka or maybe even L’amour braque — this is by far the most mean-spirited of Zuławski’s films. After a melodramatic, “love at first sight” moment (another of Zuławski’s often used scenes), Ernesto falls in love with Zinayda, believing that she feels the same way about him. He sneaks back to the estate to reunite with her and, after claiming that she is a virgin because of her husband’s infirmity, they have sex. Ernesto plans for them to run away together, but then learns that Zinayda’s plan all along has been to get pregnant and thus ensure that she will inherit her husband’s fortune. Zuławski cruelly implies that Ernesto is only one of many men who has been used in the same scheme, though he seems to be taking it particularly badly.

While both of these short films may seem more conventional and melodramatic than Zuławski’s features, they’re important starting off points that give an indication of the themes that he would return to throughout his career. In addition to love triangles, literary source material, hysterical women, and doomed love, also featured is my favorite of all Zuławski’s visual tropes: the use of a winding staircase to establish a frantic sense of motion and often emotional turmoil. Apparently Zuławski was inspired by a similar scene in Wajda’s Pokolenie (1955) aka A Generation, and it’s interesting (though perhaps a bit unfair) to consider just how far outstripped the senior director. Though these two films are not yet available in any home release, you can find both The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello on Youtube with English subtitles, though hopefully that will be rectified sooner rather than later. 

Originally written for Diabolique.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Stephen Weeks, 1971
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Mike Raven, George Merritt

Charles Marlowe, an accomplished psychologist, begins testing out a new drug that will allow him to expand on Sigmund Freud’s theories of human repression and mental illness. Noticing that the drug makes his patients respond in complete opposition to their personalities, Marlowe begins testing himself and soon an unexpected new character — the sadistic and ugly Edward Blake — emerges. He is sexually and physically aggressive and his behavior soon begins to escalate. Marlowe’s lawyer, Frederick Utterson, realizes that something is amiss and becomes determined to help his friend, regardless of the cost, once Blake begins murdering local prostitutes.

The improbably named I, Monster is yet another interpretation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If you aren’t quite as devoted a British horror fan as, say, I am, this probably seems like yet another Hammer interpretation of a classic horror story previously filmed by Universal Studios, thanks in no small part to starring roles from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a Victorian setting (though it quite notably lacks Hammer’s style or panache). I have to admit that I’m getting rather tired of these adaptations. This might also be that I’ve just reached my cap and my heart is already too devoted to films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) — all of which I genuinely love — to make room for a watered down interpretation of this tried and true genre formula. 

After a pretty solid run of films written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, Amicus co-owner and producer Milton Subotsky once again returned to writing duties for this entry, though I can’t say that he did it any favors. It’s also curious that Amicus began filming in 3-D, though this process was eventually abandoned for some reason. That’s a shame, because maybe 3-D would have made the camera work a little more enjoyable, or at least campier. Sadly the film disappoints when it comes to script, direction, and effects. There’s some dull direction from Stephen Weeks, then a fledgling director who admittedly would not go on to helm many other films (though it curiously seems like he made two different versions of the Gawain and the Green Knight tale). 

Because The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is basically a variation on the werewolf myth, transformation sequences are hugely important elements of cinematic adaptations of the tale. So it’s hard for me to hide my displeasure at the fact that in I, Monster, Christopher Lee’s transformation is minimal at best, with Lee barely appearing altered. His Hyde — Edward Blake — looks exactly like Marlowe, but with the addition of some dirty, torn clothing and what appear to be Halloween store dentures. Lee makes the most of the split role, gleefully acting out as the malicious Blake, while poor Peter Cushing is given precious little to do, though he’s a reassuring presence, as always. But the less said about Mike Raven (of Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire) — and his facial hair — the better.

Despite Lee’s enthusiasm, the script really fails its protagonist. The main problem with Jekyll/Marlowe is that he is just too tightly laced and unsympathetic, which is also the issue with the character in general. Sometimes this has hilarious results, as in an early scene where he first tests the experimental drug on his cat — though maybe it’s just a random cat hanging out in the laboratory, as he doesn’t strike me as someone who would have pets — giving not only an indication of how Marlowe treats living things, but the regard for which British genre cinema obviously feels towards cats. 

Another of the film’s more tedious elements is its obsession with Freud. The themes of sexual repression and addiction that appear in several other British horror films during this period are hijacked by Marlowe’s determination to improve upon Freud’s work. The drug he develops is meant to bring out the patient’s buried impulses: a repressed, introverted woman becomes sexually aggressive, while a brutish thug acts like an innocent child. His research is of course hampered by his own determination to live a life of pure science and research, which results in his unconscious desires aggressively consume his life, causing him to transform even after he has given up taking the drug.

The real issue of course is with Marlowe himself, who is quite damaged and seems unable to form close relationships outside his practice. He says that his father used his cane for things other than walking — implying that the man was a sadist, giving an interesting psychological subtext for his obsession with his studies and the drug he is developing. His only friend is apparently his attorney, Utterson, which brings me to another strange issue with the script. There are a bizarre series of name changes surrounding the central character — Marlowe and Blake instead of Jekyll and Hyde — though otherwise the script is surprisingly faithful to the novel and includes characters like Utterson and Enfield, among others. It’s not a rights issue, because by the early ‘70s, the novel had been in the public domain for quite some time. In a weird way, this is sort of the inverse of both Jess Franco and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptations, both of which claim to be faithful to the novel but absolutely are not. I. Monster is actually faithful, outside of its new title and new names for the divided protagonist.

I have to admit that I can’t really recommend I, Monster, though Lee and Cushing completists (as well as Mike Raven completists, if those exist) will definitely want to check it out at least once. You can find it on DVD from Image, though it’s certainly more of a rental than a purchase. As of this writing, it’s also available streaming on Amazon.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

COSMOS (2015)

For me, Andrzej Żuławski’s thirteenth and final feature film, Cosmos (2015), is a bittersweet affair. On one hand, this is overwhelmingly because I got to see the film’s US premier a mere two days after his passing on February 17 of this year, which seems either grossly unfair or strangely fitting. But there is also much about Cosmos, an adaptation of an absurdist novel by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, that is bittersweet. There’s something fundamentally ridiculous about saying that a 75-year-old director’s last work — and his return to filmmaking after a 15-year absence — possesses “mature sensibilities.” But like the best of Żuławski’s later films, such as La note bleue (1991) and La fidélité (2000), Cosmos is a complex film that captures a surprisingly wide range of flavors, tones, and moods, almost too wide to really be digested in one viewing.

Loosely described as a “metaphysical noir thriller,” the plot of Cosmos is both deceptively simple and maddeningly abstruse. Two young men, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), are taking a short holiday in the countryside. They stay at a guesthouse owned by Madame Woytis (a powerful performance from Alain Resnais’ widow Sabine Azéma) and her nonsensical husband Léon (Jean-François Balmer). Witold and Fuchs become obsessed with solving a mystery surrounding strange signs — a dead sparrow hanged by a wire in the woods, a mark in the ceiling of their room, a scar on the lip of the maid, and other clues in the garden — while Witold falls in love with the Woytis’s daughter Lena (Victória Guerra), who also lives in the house with her stuffy architect husband, Lucien (Andy Gillet).

Though I standby the description of Cosmos as a mature work, its central themes of sex, death, and existential investigation are refracted through a youthful, if not openly naive character. Żuławski has described some of his previous protagonists — such as those found in films like L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and L’amour braque (1985) — as being childlike and Witold fits in with this type. He is also a moody dreamer, subject to constant flights of fancy (and fantasy). Like Gombrowicz and Żuławski himself, Witold is a writer and is defined by a relentless, if morbid curiosity about the world around him.

Witold’s need to weave a narrative out of random signs and string together seemingly unrelated, inconsequential events becomes increasingly pathological as the film progresses and as he becomes more obsessed with Lena. Though he begins as a self-described detective, or even an impartial observer, he soon becomes an active participant in the peculiar events of the guesthouse. The book’s stream-of-consciousness prose borders on the scatological as Witold’s adventures function largely as attempts to make sense of life’s meaninglessness and its many absurdities. But Żuławski — perhaps even more so than Gombrowicz — presents this struggle as central to life’s mystery, its fascination, and even its wonder.

This sense of awe is particularly reflected in Cosmos’s preoccupation with love, sex, and coupling. A fundamentally, if disturbingly erotic film, this is yet another example of Żuławski’s tendency to portray falling in love as an involuntary, even inconvenient or unpleasant event, one that often occurs against the wills of the respective lovers. Many of his films feature a melodramatic “love at first sight” moment, where the destinies of two characters are altered by simply looking at each other. A scene of this type occurs in various forms all the way from one of his early short films, Pavoncello (1969) to his first feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), as well as his first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer, and appears in nearly all of his later works, such as Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), La note bleue, Szamanka (1996), and La fidélité.

In Gombrowicz’s novel, the moment occurs when Witold first spies Lena, mere moments after he and Fuchs enter the guesthouse and Madame Woytis takes them to see the room they will rent. He writes, “And yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day” (22). Witold is again later haunted by this image of skin on wire mesh and fixates on Lena’s hands — particularly how they hold her cigarettes, manipulate her food, or rest on the dinner table — and her lips, a visual trope Żuławski makes particularly elegant use of.

For Witold, Lena is as much of a mystery as the hanging bird. He spends much of the film trying to know her and to assess the nature of her relationship with her husband. In the novel, he repeated wonders things like, “Were they in love? Passionate love? Sensible? Romantic? Easy? Difficult? Not in love at all?” (36). Witold’s desire for her becomes increasingly frustrated and internalized, resulting in an unexpectedly violent scene where he strangles her pet cat to death, an act the other characters interpret as being connected to the mystery of the hanging bird. Later, Witold fantasizes about strangling Lena and, as in many of Żuławski’s other films, this unresolved erotic longing becomes a disruptive force.

The residents of the guesthouse, including Witold and Fuchs, travel to the seaside for a few days, where Witold is confronted with a series of other relationships — Lena’s increasingly strange parents, other young married couples in various states of conflict (including one character that slyly references Tintin), and a frustrated, hitchhiking priest — which serve to contrast the love triangle that is forming between Lena, her husband, and Witold. This dramatic structure is present in nearly every single one of Żuławski’s films, but takes an unusual form here. Like several of his films — particularly L’important c’est d’aimer and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos joursCosmos ends in suicide, with the implication that Lena’s husband hanged himself. Witold questions whether or not there was foul play, possibly implicating himself.

Despite Lucien’s sudden, completely unexpected departure from the film, neither Gombrowicz nor Żuławski ever resolve this issue of Witold and Lena’s romance, though their slightly disparate approaches to the conclusion mark an important difference in the two narratives. In the last few words of the novel, Witold says, “I returned to Warsaw, my parents, war with my father again, various other things, problems, complications, difficulties. Today we had chicken fricassee for dinner” (273). Żuławski also ends with a variation (I believe a different translation) of this last line about the chicken dinner, but leaves things much more open-ended. He makes it clear that the attraction Witold feels for Lena has become mutual and the film presumably ends with everyone returned to the guesthouse. As in Boris Godunov, he pulls the cameras back and breaks the fourth wall, revealing the cast and crew at work.

This ending line — about having chicken for dinner — simultaneously underlines three of the film’s other important themes: humor, a sense of whimsy, and the importance of food. While I’ve seen other critics compare Cosmos loosely to Buñuel’s surreal, comic critiques of the bourgeoisie, Cosmos seems to me to be more Rabelaisian than Buñuelian. In the brilliant study, Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “In the acting of eating, as we have said, the confines between the world and the body are overstepped by the body; it triumphs over the world, over its enemy, celebrates its victory, grows at the world’s expense“ (282-283).

More satirical and nonsensical than outright surreal, Cosmos places an unusual emphasis on mealtimes and domestic rituals. As in La note bleue, food is not only connected with familial interactions and social intimacy, but with an earthy sense of physicality and sensuality. While scenes in restaurants and cafes figures strongly into many of Żuławski’s films — such as L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, Szamanka, and La fidélité — the closet parallel is La note bleue. This exploration of the fading historical relationship between Polish pianist Frédéric Chopin and French novelist George Sand devotes its running time nearly equally to melancholic contemplations of death and moments of ribald humor. Many scenes are concerned with preparing or eating food and, like Cosmos, the kitchen is a central location.

Bakhtin also illustrates the connections between food and wordplay that occur occasionally in La note bleue and even more frequently — and abstractly — in the film and book versions of Cosmos. He states, “The banquet is even more important as the occasion for wise discourse, for gay truth. There is an ancient tie between the feast and the spoken word. The antique symposium presents this relation in its clearest and most classic form. But medieval grotesque realism had its own original symposium, that is, the tradition of festive speech” (283). As often uncomfortable emotional truths are revealed during scenes of feasting in La note bleue, Witold and particularly Léon, the owner of the guesthouse, go on whimsical flights of verbal fancy at nearly every meal.

Léon, played by prolific Swiss-French actor and director Jean-François Balmer in a nearly film-stealing role, is a perfect example of Żuławski’s fascinating approach to side characters. It would be easy to see Léon as a future version of Witold. He is fully consumed by existential musings and his family — particularly their communal dinners — seem to be the only thing tenuously linking him to reality. He is something of a Holy Fool, a character type frequently used by Rabelais and also throughout Renaissance literature in general, and he develops a special bond with Witold. While the younger writer is ostensibly the only person able to fully understand Léon’s individualized use of gibberish — he has basically created his own language — Léon has a clear understanding of Witold’s feelings for his daughter.

This difficult use of language as exemplified by both Léon and Witold makes Cosmos not necessarily suited to the inexperienced filmgoer and it’s important to note that Żuławski also layers the film with literary and cultural references (even taking a few light-hearted jabs at himself). For example, in Daniel Bird’s recent essay on Żuławski for Film Comment, he mentions that, “Cosmos opens with the first lines from Dante’s Inferno and also features a poem by Fernando Pessoa in both French translation and the original Portuguese.” Unlike other European arthouse directors who litter their films with cinematic references, Żuławski is an overwhelmingly literary director. Over the years he adapted everything from Dostoyevsky and Turgenev to obscure French memoirs, and also peppered his works with an incredibly long list of references including everything from Shakespeare and the Book of Revelations to French pop culture.

In this way, Cosmos is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant career. It’s an almost intentionally challenging film, one that expects active spectatorship and an intelligent, educated, attentive audience. Gombrowicz wrote of his own novel, “Cosmos for me, is black, first and foremost black, something like a black churning current full of whirls, stoppages, flood waters, a black water carrying lots of refuse, and there is man gazing at it—gazing at it and swept up by it—trying to decipher, to understand and to bind it into some kind of a whole…” A collage of linear and non-linear plot elements, powerful visual and literary experiments, and both intellectual and emotional gymnastics, Cosmos is both a powerful singular work and an incredible adaptation. While a few others have attempted it over the years — including Jerzy Skolimowski, who was apparently so traumatized by the experience of filming Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke as 30 Door Key (1991) that he didn’t return to directing for nearly two decades — Cosmos stands as the most successful cinematic interpretation of any Gombrowicz text.

It’s perhaps ironic that though Żuławski returned to Poland for the final decades of his life, his last work was a French-Portuguese coproduction. This, of course, reflects poorly on the current Polish cultural climate and increasingly right-wing political conditions, which form an interesting parallel to Gombrowicz’s struggles. In his extensive Diary, Gombrowicz wrote, “I, who am terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland, have always been irritated by that little, childish, secondary, ordered, and religious world that is Poland.”

Gombrowicz, who spent a significant portion of his life in South America — thanks to a voyage just before the start of WWII that likely saved his life but stranded him there for a time — was equally frustrated by Polish culture, particularly the Soviet propensity for censorship. His work didn’t become really accessible until Żuławski was already a young man. In a recent Film Comment interview on Cosmos, Żuławski said, “We were feeding on his plays and books because he was like air, like light, in those terribly sad, grey, and lying times. Whatever he did looked like a savage provocation in front of the Communist concrete and total boredom and total incapacity to do anything right. My entire generation was a Gombrowicz generation.” And if I can say anything about Cosmos in conclusion, it is that it’s equally a savage provocation against boredom, stupidity, and conventionality and leaves one with a curious feeling of hope.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Friday, April 15, 2016


Peter Duffell, 1971
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Jon Pertwee, Denholm Elliott, Ingrid Pitt

Amicus’s third anthology film, after Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Torture Garden, is still a relatively early example of the studio’s mastery over the portmanteau subgenre. While I tend to think that they got better as they went along — later efforts like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror are my two favorites — The House That Dripped Blood is a marked improvement over Torture Garden and offers up one of their best framing devices: a disturbing old house that has witnessed many horrors (though definitely does not drip blood at any point during the film) is the focus of a new investigation from a jaded Scotland Yard detective (British TV actor John Bennett). It also boasts one of the best casts out of any of Amicus’s genre films, including some fantastic appearances from British horror stalwarts like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, as well as Ingrid Pitt, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, and the delightful Denholm Elliott.

Though regular Amicus director Freddie Francis was absent for this film — replaced by British TV regular Peter Duffel — author Robert Bloch once again returned as screenwriter. The first tale, “Method for Murder,” sets the tone for the series, which is lighter on camp than Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors or Torture Garden, and features a convincing blend of crime and horror. Denholm Elliott plays a horror writer who rents the titular house to break through writer’s block, though he begins to see physical manifestations of the psychopathic character he has created. Spoilers: This story has a particularly fun twist, one that (possibly intentionally?) makes fun of Hammer suspense films. It turns out that the writer keeps seeing his fictional psychopath, because his wife (Joanna Dunham) is having an affair with a young actor (Tom Adams) and wants to steal all her husband’s money. But the joke is on her, because the actor has really become possessed by the spirit of the killer…

The second tale, “Waxworks,” is a bit more plodding — or would be if it wasn’t for the delightful intervention of Peter Cushing, reprising a role similar to the one he played in stand-alone Amicus film The Skull: a reasonable, if not outright likable man who is clearly on a descent into insanity. Cushing’s character, Peter Greyson, is a retiree renting the house to relax and pursue activities like gardening, reading, and staring longingly at the photograph of a beautiful young woman. Soon he comes across her likeness in a gruesome wax museum and it’s clear that he and another friend — played by underrated actor Joss Ackland, fresh off Hammer suspense film Crescendo — have a complicated history with her. One of the weaker links in The House That Dripped Blood, it’s still plenty entertaining thanks to a strong performance from Cushing, who I would watch in anything.

About on par with “Waxworks” is the next story, “Sweets to the Sweet,” which stars Cushing’s regular partner-in-crime, Christopher Lee. He plays a stern father who is mysteriously cruel to his traumatized young daughter. Refusing to send her to private school, he hires a pretty teacher (New Zealander Nyree Dawn Porter of The Forsyte Saga) to help bring the girl out of her shell and give her an education. But the teacher soon learns that he’s not abusive towards his daughter because of some past trauma, but because he fears that the girl has inherited her mother’s violent occult powers. Aside from Lee’s domineering, charismatic presence, this is probably the most forgettable story in the anthology and has sort of a smug approach to witchcraft themes. “Sweets to the Sweet” essentially follows the idea that the child in inherently bad and will cause rampant destruction if allowed to do basic childhood activities like playing with dolls.

The final entry, “The Cloak,” is if not the best of the bunch, at least equal to “Method for Murder.” Though Vincent Price was supposed to star, he was prevented from doing so by his contract with American International Pictures, though the would later collaborate with Amicus on Madhouse which costarred Price and Cushing. Instead, the wonderful Jon Pertwee was cast as Paul Henderson, a genre celebrity who rents the house while working on a local horror shoot. He buys an old cloak from a strange man, but realizes that it makes him act strangely, even inspiring him to bite the neck of his buxom costar (Ingrid Pitt, allowed to be delightfully funny for once). This is one of the best segments in any Amicus portmanteau film, so I don’t want to ruin it.

The House That Dripped Blood comes recommended, particularly for anyone who loves old school horror with liberal doses of camp and humor. It’s also a great place to start if you’ve never seen an anthology film and want to check one out. The film is available on a UK DVD or US DVD, though I’m hoping a Blu-ray box set of Amicus anthology films will come along sometime soon — at least something to rival the Arrow Vincent Price/Roger Corman box set.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Freddie Francis, 1967
Starring: Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams, Peter Cushing, Michael Ripper

Dr. Diabolo — the always terrifying Burgess Meredith in a fantastic role as an extravagant, mustachioed sideshow performer — invites five seemingly random circus-goers in for a private tour of some of his more gruesome attractions, including murder reenactments and fare similar to wax museums. Diabolo eventually introduces them to the wax figure of Atropos, the Greek goddess of fate, and her menacing sheers destined to snip each and every human lifeline at one point or another. One after another, the five characters are sent into trances as they stare at Atropos, where they all get foreboding visions of their respective violent fates. 

After 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Amicus finally returned to the portmanteau film subgenre that would become the studio’s signature. This second entry — after a number of standalone features like The Skull, Deadly Bees, and The Psychopath, all directed by Freddie Francis and scripted by Robert Block — very much follows the same formula as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors: it begins with a framing story that borders on camp with a central figure who doles out horrific fates to a group of strangers, who are all first unbelieving or indignant, but are soon terrified. And Torture Garden has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of its forebear, in the sense that some of the stories are very strong, while others are just disappointing.

Torture Garden’s main strength is that it’s not only penned by Robert Bloch — unlike Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which was written by Amicus co-owner and producer Milton Subotsky — and is based on some of Bloch’s own tales. In the first, “Enoch,” a man attempts to wrest the family fortune from his dying uncle, but is in for quite a surprise. Personally, I’m a bit exhausted by the inheritance plot as motive for murder, which is a default plot many of these British suspense/horror films. SPOILERS: I’ve written a few times now about horror movies with possessed or evil cats — films like The Uncanny, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, and Hammer’s own The Shadow of the Cat — a trope that continues to be just absolutely ridiculous. While Night of a Thousand Cats is admittedly my favorite of these films, this segment in Torture Garden deserve at least a round of applause. This fucking cat is telepathic, apparently possessed by a witch, and psychically manipulates a man into killing people so it can eat their heads.

It eats their heads.

Unfortunately the second story, “Terror Over Hollywood,” is a massive disappointment and is a bit more sci-fi than horror. It follows a bitchy actress (Beverly Adams) — the same woman that earlier in the framing sequence introduced herself as being from Hollywood, not Los Angeles or California — who maneuvers her way into a date with some Hollywood big shots. When she is given her big break, she’s so obsessed with a lead actor that she soon realizes that he and some of his coworkers are androids, once famous actors who had their consciousnesses transported into metal bodies by a menacing doctor. I certainly hope this was intentional on Bloch’s part, but the dialogue in this one is absolutely grating. For instance, there a shot where Adams says “this noon” instead of “this afternoon,” which makes me want to actively kill myself

The film redeems itself a bit with the last two stories. In “Mr. Steinway,” the poor John Standing — who was just so obsessively controlled by his demented mother in The Psychopath — is here an unstable pianist being controlled by a manipulative girlfriend (Barbara Ewing) and a demanding agent. But his piano, with a mind of its own, has enough and throws his pushy girlfriend right out the window of his apartment, which just happens to be several stories off the ground — all while playing Chopin’s “Funeral March.” I wish this sense of bleak, campy fun had wound its way throughout the film, though fortunately it’s also present in the last story.

In “The Man Who Collected Poe,” Peter Cushing appears in a story not dissimilar to The Skull, where he faces off against an even more rabid collector of Edgar Allen Poe paraphernalia — played by a raving Jack Palance. Few could chew scenery better, as is proven by films like Hawk the Slayer and Dan Curtis’s 1974 Dracula, and the combination of Palance and Cushing is just delightful. This film was actually supposed to highlight Christopher Lee and Cushing, rather than relegating Cushing to what is basically a side role, but American financers demanded some bigger American names like Burgess Meredith and Palance. And while I love them both, their combined weight and frothy-lipped scenery chewing makes this feel less like an Amicus anthology film and more like a colorful, low budget series of episodes of something like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

British horror fans really seem to especially love or hate this one, which I find kind of baffling. Torture Garden — which lacks any gardens or scenes of torture — is far from the best Amicus film, but has its enjoyable moments. Did I mention already that a telepathic cat makes someone kill people so that it can eat their heads? Not their brains, but their entire heads (a feat that would actually be physically impossible for a common house cat). There’s also a delightful epilogue starring one of my favorite Hammer actors, Michael Ripper, and the typically bone-headed twist that most of these anthology films include. While it lacks the grace, style, or teeth-gnashing camp of The Skull — which might still be my favorite Amicus film — this is worth watching and can be easily found on DVD.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Freddie Francis, 1966
Starring: Patrick Wymark, Margaret Johnston, John Standing, Alexander Knox

Inspector Holloway is put on a strange murder case where a man is run down with a car and a doll made in his image is left behind at the scene of the crime. Soon other similar murders occur, seemingly surrounding a group of business associates who worked together during WWII. The trail eventually leads back to a handicapped German woman, Mrs. Von Sturm, whose husband committed suicide after some dark accusations implying he took advantage of slave labor during wartime. The obviously disturbed Mrs. Von Sturm lives with her adult son Mark in a house coincidentally full of strange dolls…

While the majority of Amicus’s films are widely available on home video release, The Psychopath is one of the rare titles that has seemed to slip through the cracks, possibly because it’s such a strange beast. Written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, the sort of unfortunately titled The Psychopath does bare some things in common with Hitchcock’s superior film — namely a troubled relationship between parents and children — but is a strange transitional entry between Hammer’s black and white suspense films that inspired it and some of the early giallo films. It’s not quite as lurid or over the top as similar later titles like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) or Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974), but it has a number of unexpected giallo-like elements. 

First and foremost are the series of killings with a specific modus operandi — the dolls left behind — that is obviously connected to past trauma, but there is a female character in a bright red raincoat, a number of suspicious side characters, and the uncanny use of dolls and mannequins that also appear in so many giallo films. There’s even a vaguely sinister European painter/sculptor (Robert Crewdson of Her Private Hell), one of my favorite bizarre Euroocult tropes. He gets some of his art materials from a junkyard, which is of course where he meets his sticky end.

The Psychopath of course also has plenty of British genre elements. In addition to director Freddie Francis, cinematographer John Wilcox, and screenwriter Robert Bloch, there are some links to previous Amicus film The Deadly Bees. While Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood appeared briefly in The Deadly Bees, here he apparently contributed some music, though regular Amicus composer Elisabeth Lutyens — one of the few female composers in genre cinema — provides the excellent score. Side character Gina Gianelli, here the woman in the red raincoat and doll factory employee, also met a sticky end in The Deadly Bees

The film’s main problem is that it’s not sure what type of horror films it wants to be. It sometimes seems to be a straightforward murder mystery with the central protagonist as the detective (British horror staple Patrick Wymark of everything from The Skull and Repulsion to Witchfinder General). But other times it’s a much stranger, more giallo-like film and would benefit from the same structure as British psychopath films from the period — such as The Collector — that make the killer’s identity obvious from the beginning. I don’t really think I’m giving anything away here by saying that the murderer is indeed the disturbed Mark Von Sturm (John Standing of The Elephant Man). Mark is basically “Norman Bates, the early years,” and his relationship with his mother is truly unsettling.

The real psychopath of The Psychopath is actually Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston of Torture Garden), who is fittingly menacing. Though she is not the killer, she gets the last laugh in a truly fucked up ending sequence where it’s revealed (SPOILERS) that she has “rescued” an injured Mark and has turned him into a human doll, where he will never be able to escape her maternal clutches. In a sort of inversion of Psycho, she gets up out of the wheelchair at the last minute, ready for one final act of maniacal violence. 

There are some colorful side performances, namely from Thorley Walters (Vampire Circus) and Judy Huxtable (Scream and Scream Again), who is almost given a meaty roll as the daughter of Frank Saville (Alexander Knox of Modesty Blaise). In an interesting parallel to the relationship between Mrs. Von Sturm and Mark, Saville is also in poor health, a fact that he uses to manipulate his daughter into responding to his every whim.

It’s not without its issues, but I certainly enjoyed the film and I have trouble understanding why it’s still so obscure. The Psychopath comes recommended for anyone who enjoys more obscure giallo films, krimis, or some of the more unusual British horror entries from the period. It’s available on an Italian DVD, though hopefully it will see the light of day on Blu-ray sometime soon. This is not the movie for anyone who hates dolls — which I admittedly kind of do — as they are absolutely everywhere. Various characters collect them, make them, or work in a doll shop. It’s this sort of improbably, even zany link between visual and plot themes that makes The Psychopath feel so much more like a giallo film than a lesser seen entry in British horror.

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 3

The third episode of the podcast I'm co-hosting is now up!

From the Diabolique site:

In the third episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm wrap up their three-part discussion of lesbian vampire films, this time with a focus on low budget American and Spanish films from the 1970s. They begin their discussion with the unusual film The Velvet Vampire (1971), the only entry in the series to be directed by a woman. The film’s star, Celeste Yarnall, is currently in ill health, so please contribute to her Go Fund Me campaign.

Then they explore Spanish-language films like The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971), where Paul Naschy’s werewolf faces off against a vampire queen, and the eerie, poetic The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972). They also take a look at Joe Sarno’s inane sexploitation film, The Devil’s Plaything (1973), about a castle full of lesbian vampires attempting to reincarnate their perverse leader with the help of a buxom, virginal sacrificial victim. Luigi Batzella’s absolutely insane The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) gets a special mention, before moving onto cult classics like José Ramón Larraz Vampyres (1974) and Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1977), as well as his Mary, Mary Bloody Mary (1975). Two obscure films about innocent young girls who are pursued by aggressive female vampires are also explored: Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and low budget American film Lemora, a Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1975).

The episode concludes with a somber discussion of two more mainstream, relatively recent lesbian vampire films. First off is The Hunger (1983), Tony Scott’s melancholy meditation on aging and death starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. Finally, Nadja (1994) is a David Lynch-produced film that reimagines one of the first movies discussed in episode one, Dracula’s Daughter, with a ‘90s independent cinema feel.

An Interview with Daniel Bird

This is the concluding entry in a four part series on director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films — Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the Night, Diabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe — which I recently had the pleasure to see at the Lincoln Center in New York. The retrospective’s co-curator, writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird, was kind enough to sit down and talk about the process of restoring these films, their place in Polish culture, and the future of Żuławski’s cinematic legacy.

Diabolique: How did the restorations for The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Silver Globe come about and what was your involvement with them? 

Daniel Bird: The Third Part of the Night was in the process of being restored, my only involvement in that was asking if Żuławski could approve it. Witold Sobocinski, the director of photography, did an excellent job, and I understand that work on that title went smoothly. As for The Devil and On the Silver Globe, Florence Almozini (associate director of programmer at the Film Society at the Lincoln Center) and myself wanted to present all three titles together with Cosmos. I approached The Polish Film Institute about funding the restoration of the remaining two titles.

Apart from the financing, I was not actively involved in the restoration of The Devil. However, Żuławski got sick around the same time we started work on On the Silver Globe, so I was left with no choice but to take a more active role. Andrzej Jaroszewicz did an excellent job with the grading, and Gosia Grzyb is a brilliant colourist. I am extremely proud to have played a part in this project.

Diabolique: The first two films, in particular, seem to involve a lot of familiar faces, like Żuławski’s first wife, Małgorzata Braunek, and the cinematographer, Andrzej Jaroszewicz, and composer, Andrzej Korzynski. Plenty of directors seem to work with a core cast and crew group, but can you talk about how Żuławski chose collaborators for these early films? 

DB: Korzynski was Żuławski’s friend since his school days. Braunek, at the time, was arguably the biggest star in Polish cinema, however, I don’t think it was Żuławski’s intention to cast her in The Devil. She had just given birth to their son, Xawery, but the casting didn’t work out so she had to put a pillow under her dress and pretend to be pregnant.

It’s worth noting that a lot of those actors are very young, often in their first film roles, and fresh from theatre school. Żuławski prided himself on sniffing out new talent. If Dark Matter [a planned but not realized project] had happened, it would have been the first big role for Marine Vacth, as she was attached. Most of the cast for both The Third Part of the Night and The Devil are fresh from theatre school, and Jonathan Genet in Cosmos is no different. I think it’s a question of recognising talent, managing egos and, ultimately, exerting control.

As for Jaroszewicz, he was the camera operator for Maciej Kijowski, who had been the operator for Witold Sobociński on The Third Part of the Night. Jaroszewicz was as much interested in moving the camera as he was lighting, but of course the two things are connected. If you are going to move the camera about, you have to think about lighting differently. Between them they really pushed this mobile camera to an extreme with On the Silver Globe.

Diabolique: It seems to me that these first three Polish films are also his most overtly political. Would you agree or disagree with that and, if so, do you think there are any reasons for this outside of simply being created in a repressive political environment? 

DB: I would disagree! First, I don’t think any of Żuławski’s films are overtly political. I just read an interview he did in Locarno and he says quite explicitly that there is nothing worse than a filmmaker with a cause. Second, I think they are all, in one way or another, political. Sure, everything is political, but in his case, politics were necessary. Take Possession, when Heinrich says, “I believe no one has the right to impose his will on anybody.” Marc say, “How long have you been fucking me over?” I think that sums up Żuławski’s feelings about Communism; i.e. people who abolish power structures always turn out to be tyrants themselves. Heinrich’s bullshit “liberates” Anna, but leaves her feeling suffocated in a different way.

The commercial market place is just as repressive, but in a different way. Sure, The Devil was banned and On the Silver Globe was shut down, but look what happened to Possession in the US – it got mangled beyond belief and it took 30 years before anyone got to see it properly. Just as careerists rose up the communist system by taking “control” of rogue film projects — like the guy who shut down On the Silver Globe — so do their Hollywood counterparts – how many Hollywood films have been butchered?

Possession is, of course, a problem. Take that line of Anna’s, “No one is good or bad.” In most horror films it is quite obvious who the bad guy is – Jason, Freddy, etc. Hollywood genre cinema is predicated on the good guys versus bad guys, just as Communist cinema is or was, but Żuławski wasn’t a moralist.

 Diabolique: What was the Polish reaction — both in terms of film criticism and the censorship office — to these first three films? 

DB: All three encountered problems of varying severity. The problematic aspect of The Third Part of the Night is that it focuses on the role of the Armia Krajowa, or the Home Army. They are not workers, but intellectuals – writers, mathematicians, musicians. Of course, it is this officer class, these intellectuals, which the Soviet did their best to get rid of, during WWII (for example, in the Katyn massacre), immediately afterwards, and during the early 1950s at the height of Stalinism in Poland. So, by merely presenting this class, and the role they played in the War, it was considered an issue.

The situation with The Devil was more severe, as the film was banned in 1972 and was not released until the 1980s. Officially, the film was banned for upsetting Catholics. Unofficially, it was because the film alludes to the role of the minister of the interior in the student riots of March ’68 which resulted in a purge of Jews from the Polish Communist Party.

In the case of On the Silver Globe, the film was shut down towards the end of shooting, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. There are many reasons for the halting of On the Silver Globe. First, this happened before the visit of John Paul II, before the formation of Solidarity. Second, the head of cinematography, Janusz Wilhelmi, used the production problems of On the Silver Globe to take the place of Jozef Tejchma as Minister of Culture. Third, the Polish economy was in crisis during the second half of the ‘70s. Żuławski got very angry whenever anyone described On the Silver Globe as an extravagance. For me, the “unmaking” of On the Silver Globe is really about the cracks appearing in the Eastern Bloc.

Diabolique: It’s an interesting parallel that you’re drawing between Communism’s insistence on clear morality in art and Hollywood’s determination to have the same. It seems to me that the most interesting — or at least my favorite — filmmakers often explore moral gray areas. Why do you think this is such a constant theme in Żuławski’s films? 

DB: I think it has something to do with his generation. He was born in 1940 in Lwow. This means that, for his first four years, he was watching people die. Żuławski had a sister but she starved to death. Remember, existentialism as a philosophical and literary movement flourished as a consequence of the Second World War. Żuławski was very critical of Sartre, as you can tell from the dialogue in Cosmos, but he had more time for Heidegger, which he discusses at length in one of his novels, Infidelity. His hero was Conrad, and I think the way he looked at the world was very similar: man against a godless universe. He was fascinated by religion, but was not at all religious. If you don’t believe in God does that mean you have moral carte blanche? He was interested in the heart of darkness… He disliked horror as a genre, but was obviously very much interested in “the horror, the horror.” At the same time he rated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, The Shining, and Carpenter’s The Thing very highly indeed.

Diabolique: The majority of Zuławski’s subsequent films were set in present day, while these first three Polish films are set in either the past or a fictional world. Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that they were made in Poland and funded by the government? 

DB: Well, period dramas were, as a rule, deemed “safer.” The problems were films which were period dramas about “now,” like The Devil or Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation. On the other hand, the films Żuławski made outside of Poland were usually subject to budgetary pressures. I think he often turned this restraint to his advantage; take Cosmos, for example. On the one hand, I don’t think there was ever a question of the film being set during the time it is set, simply from an economic point of view. On the other hand, like L’amour braque and La fidélité, I think the strength of Cosmos is how Żuławski transposes the novel to the present day.

Diabolique: You mentioned that Joseph Conrad was a major influence. Considering the other adaptations he did over the years, why didn’t he ever use Conrad’s work? Secret Agent is a personal favorite that I would have loved to see adapted by Żuławski. It also seems like subject matter that certainly would have been popular in Poland and I know a few other directors, like Wajda, did adapt some of his material. 

DB: Actually, he did write a script based on Heart of Darkness for Wajda to direct during the ‘60s. It was to be produced by Paramount. He changes the sex of one of the key characters, which makes sense in the context of Żuławski’s work as a whole. It was to be produced by one of Selznick’s sons.

Of course, Conrad is deceptively tricky when it comes to making film adaptations. Welles reached the same conclusion. What do you film? What Marlow says? Or, do you film Marlow telling the story? In his proposed version of Heart of Darkness, which in turn was based on his radio play, Welles tried to have his cake and eat it. Marlow, Conrad’s infamously unreliable narrator, is arguably the defining characteristic of Conrad’s modernism, but it does present problems for cinema.

Of course, you can do something like Rashomon, but the effect is not the same as when you read the book — although Żuławski does something brilliant at the end of Cosmos which has nothing to do with the book. Conrad figures a lot in Żuławski's novels. As for The Secret Agent, I think that book is as much an influence on La femme publique as Dostoevsky’s Demons.

Żuławski himself was very critical of Apocalypse Now. For him, Coppola or Milius misunderstood the book. “The horror, the horror” was unbound by place, it was something that could be brought home so to speak. For a while I worked with Żuławski on a script that touched upon the French-Indochina War, and we talked a lot about this. He was very keen on De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter. Żuławski thought there was a lot more Conrad in Cimino’s film than there was in Coppola’s.

Diabolique: Though you mention that you don’t think any of Żuławski’s films are specifically political, On the Silver Globe seems at least historically bound up with a lot of changes in Polish politics. His uncle’s novel was written in the politically tumultuous first decade of the 20th century and the film was shot during a period of unrest in the mid-’70s. Do you think the film’s subject matter reflects these uniquely Polish historical events? 

DB: First, Żuławski’s film of his great uncle’s book is in no way a straight adaptation. The female characters are pretty useless and the astronauts even bring dogs with them to the moon. This is understandable for a book written a hundred years ago, but it was obviously going to be a problem for audiences in the 1970s. Second, in terms of its message so to speak, there is nothing about On the Silver Globe which is “against” communism as such.

It is not a “spiritual” film like, for example, the work of Tarkovsky. Rather, its subject is spirituality, or our predisposition towards religion, and where that leads us, namely acting and politics.

Both the book and the film are awfully bleak, and like you say, this has something to do with the times they were written. Spengler’s Decline of the West, while largely forgotten today, made a big impact during the first couple of decades of the last century, i.e. immediately after the First World War.

Żuławski’s film has that great scene with the girl on the beach just questioning basic ethical principles upon which to live: Is it right to do this? Is it wrong to do that? On what or whose authority? There is nothing anti-Communist about that. Like Communism, it presents religion as an essentially social development. A good communist sci-fi would present religion as a stage one overcomes to reach some socialist Utopian goal (this is implied in the book of Hard to be a God, i.e. “why is this idiot planet stuck in the dark ages?”).

On the Silver Globe, on the other hand, presents the astronaut as the victim of a religion, which is acting politically — which is arguably something it has in common with German’s film of Hard to Be a God.

Diabolique: Why do you think Żuławski wanted to return to Poland and resume making movies there after so many years in France? 

DB: Because of the collapse of Communism. He returned to Poland in the early ‘90s. It is important to remember that Szamanka is generally considered by Polish critics to be one of the worst films ever made. This says a lot about Polish film critics. One thing which is important to remember is that when the script was refused funding by Polish television, Żuławski turned to private investors both in Poland and from abroad. Whatever anyone thinks of Szamanka, I think this is an important gesture.

Milos Forman said that the difference between filmmaking under Communism and in Hollywood was that the fate of your film depended on the opinion of one fart in the case of the former and the public in the case of the latter.

Diabolique: What would you like to see happen with his legacy? 

DB: Żuławski’s legacy is thirteen incredible films. There is not one dud. Sure, some are more interesting than others, but none, I think, are failures. Personally, I think he is up there with, Lynch or Aleksei German. Of his generation in Poland, he stands alongside Polanski and Skolimowski. Frankly, for me, with one or two exceptions, Kieslowski’s films are generally overrated. Agnieszka Holland is a safe pair of hands, which is why she excels in US TV, where the writer is king or queen. I don’t think Zanussi has made a good film in almost forty years.

In Poland, Żuławski’s reputation suffered because of the scandals surrounding his private life and his non too subtle opinions expressed in his books. However, now that he is no longer with us I hope Polish audiences in particular actually look at his films and learn to appreciate what a talent he was.

Andrzej Wajda runs a film school in Warsaw. On the walls are inspirational quotes from Paulo Coelho. Żuławski once said that if he ever ran a film school he would force students to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. I know which school I would have picked.

Originally written for Diabolique.