Andrej Zulawski is a filmmaker like no other. Now, we say that about a lot of directors, but the moment you begin watching a Zulawski film, you’ll know there’s no other way to describe him. His most famous film, a Lovecraftian freak out called ‘Possession” could be summed up by some as “Sam Neill yelling for two hours” (that’s a feature, not a bug), and after watching The Devil, one begins to wonder if that’s not his aesthetic. Zulawski films are an vigorous experience on a good day, but when put us in the middle of the Prussian invasion of Poland during the 18th century, you create something truly transcendent.
From the opening shots of the film, it’s obvious Zulawski is nothing going to hold anything back. We’re met by blasting music, along with screams of pain, blood of everything and the angry whinnying of horses. Following this is a truly horrifying scene, as we’re taken through the halls of a monastery full of wailing nuns, driven mad by the horrible treatments they’ve been treated to at the hands of foreign soldiers and madmen, as well as the screaming of the Polish soldiers held in their prisons. Don’t for a moment think this is just a bit of shock value to start he film, as the film holds at this level for a majority of its running time, never really providing an respite or relief from the bleakness and ferocity.
Soon into the devil, we’re introduced to Jakub, a war prisoner accused of trying to kill the king, who is set free by a mysterious figure, and sent, along with a horrified nun, to head back to his home. When he arrives, he finds everything destroyed. His wife has been married off to another man, his father has killed himself and set their house on fire, his sister has gone mad, and his mother has been forced into prostitution. As he discovers all this, we see his slow descent into madness, as he soon takes a razor blade and begins a dark plunge into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
For those unfamiliar with Zulawski’s work, the style can take some adjustment. Emotions in this film are writ large, and characters are often seen convulsing and going into hysterics early and often. Though in most films that would seen over-the-top, in light of the horrifying things we see happen, or that have been implied to have happened, would be enough to drive anyone over the edge. Those familiar with Isabel Adjani’s infamous tunnel freak out in Possession will find similar scenes here, only at times writ larger. It’s a riveting style, but not one for all tastes. The subject matter can also be a bit for some audiences, as the film reaches into dangerous territory, including implications of rape and incest (though thankfully none of this is shown). We see plenty of whippings, stabbings, shootings, and throat slashing, though, as well as an attempted crucifixion. It’s definitely not a film for the weak of heart.
Though I did thoroughly appreciate the film, I find it difficult to recommend for a number of reasons. For one, it’s impossible to find. I had to whip out my region-free DVD player to a DVD from the UK, the only extant English-language version of the film available (though the wonderful folks at Mondo Vision list it as “In Production”, so one can hope we’ll see at least a use DVD or Bluray release sometime within the next few years). It’s also one of the bleakest, harshest, and most dour films I’ve ever seen, presenting a world of such horrifying depression that it can stick with you for some time. It is, however, incredibly accomplished filmmaking, with a strong script, incredible direction, and some astonishing acting. For anyone with the stomach, and the ability, this is well worth a watch, just make sure to have something fun ready to rinse the taste out of your mouth.