The Third Part of the Night is Andrzej Żuławski’s 1971 feature debut. When it premiered, it was accused of being kitsch and compared to Mniszkówna’s prose, but from today’s perspective it seems one of the most innovative films of its time.
Andrzej Żuławski started his adventure with cinema as Andrzej Wajda’s assistant. But even in his debut, The Third Part of the Night, the student rebelled against his master and went his own way. There’s an anecdote about their little conflict: apparently after the first screening, Wajda – who was the artistic supervisor of the project – got angry at the young director. Żuławski allegedly reacted by saying: ‘Sorry, but that’s my film so you can shut it’ (quote from: ‘Żuławski. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej’). In Żuławski’s unconventional film, a preview of all his later, controversial, violent work can be found. Two autobiographical themes are a testament of the film’s original character. The inspiration for the film was the life of Mirosław Żuławski, the director’s father, who, during World War II, worked in the Institute of Typhus Research as a lice feeder.
This repulsive task, important for making vaccines for typhus, was appointed to Polish scientists and members of the resistance, who could earn a living and avoid repressions from the occupiers. In The Third Part of the Night Michał (Leszek Teleszyński), a young man from the intelligentsia, feeds the lice. His family – wife Helena (Małgorzata Braunek), his son (Janusz Miszczak) and his mother (Halina Czengery) – was killed by German soldiers. Facing guilt over their deaths, the protagonist joins the resistance and takes part in a clandestine action. He escapes and the police arrest an innocent man by mistake. As it turns out, his wife Marta (also played by Małgorzata Braunek) is very similar to the deceased Helena, which Michał takes as a sign: he decides to look after the woman and her child and redeem himself in this way.
It must be stated that the events themselves don’t say much about Żuławski’s film. The director tells the story in an unchronological way and takes the narrative back and forth in time. Sometimes events taking place in the present start the process of remembering and at other times it’s impossible to say when the action occurs. The present reflects the past, and the past – the present: the affair with Marta is similar to the relationship with Helena, becomes a repetition of it. But are we witnessing real events or the main protagonist’s hallucinations? Maybe the narrative only reflects Michał’s emotions and fantasies, since he lives in a constant state of delirium while feeding the lice? What’s interesting is that his sister sees no resemblance between Helena and Marta…
This radical experiment with subjective narrative, very original in Polish cinema of the time, is not only the proof of the grandiose graphomania that he’s often accused of. The Third Part of the Night is an intriguing film, both in form and content. Żuławski tells the story of a sensitive young man lost during the war, about his sense of guilt and need for atonement. Michał is disposed to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, but what happens in reality has nothing to do with the beauty of heroic, romantic gestures. The task of feeding lice is symbolic. Blood donated by the protagonists helps create vaccines, but at the same time it infects one. The soul is sicker than the body: people doing this profession become cold and listless. Michał desperately tries to remain human in a world of chaos. The apocalypse is coming, as the title, taken from the last book of the Bible, indicates:
And a third of the sea was turned to blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea perished, and a third of the ships were destroyed. (…) Then the fourth angel blew [his] trumpet, and a third of the sun was smitten, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that [the light of] a third of them was darkened, and a third of the daylight [itself] was withdrawn, and likewise a third [of the light] of the night was kept from shining. (Book of Revelations, 8.9, 8.12).
In The Third Part of the Night Żuławski succeeded in connecting a realistic view of the war with mystic references to the Bible and narrative experiments with sensual concrete. Feeding lice, a naturalistic scene of birth, and the protagonist’s hallucinations are all images that stay in the viewer’s memory for a long time. An uncanny atmosphere is created also by Witold Sobociński’s grim cinematography, the camera’s ‘nervous’ movements and the expressive score.
Trzecia część nocy / Third Part of the Night, Poland, 1971. Directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Written by Mirosław Żuławski, Andrzej Żuławski. Cinematography: Witold Sobociński. Muzyka Andrzej Korzyński. Set design: Teresa Barska. Starring: Leszek Teleszyński (Michał), Małgorzata Braunek (Helena, Marta), Jan Nowicki (Jan), Halina Czengery (Michał's mother) and others.
Produced by Zespół Filmowy Wektor. Colour, 101 minutes