The Third Part of the Night
was the first film Andrzej Zulawski ever made, and, throughout his troubled career, it's one of his only films that has been critically acclaimed, at least in his homeland of Poland where it won an award for Best Debut Film at the Polish Film Festival.
Ostensibly a film about the German occupation of Poland during World War II, Zulawski takes a treatment written by his father (based on his personal experiences) and turns it into an emotionally loaded trip through the guilt of a young man, Michael, who has witnessed the death of his wife and child, himself escaping. He escapes from the countryside where the incident has occurred, and while working for an opposing force barely escapes death as he runs up a staircase (a key image in the Zulawski filmography) and hides while a man who resembles him gets gunned down instead. Fleeing into the room of the wife of the man who has just taken his place, he comes to a realization that she almost perfectly resembles his own now dead wife. Throughout the rest of the film the man is constantly battling his own ideas in regards to love, especially a difference between the idea of love as self-sacrifice (as in, the high point of love is loving somebody else), and love as self-preservation (having somebody love you, having a child).
Zulawski, above all, is a filmmaker who works best in depicting extreme emotions, and his premiere film is no exception. While it isn't as developed in terms of his specific techniques as his later films, from the opening sequence which depicts the death of Michal's wife, Zulawski's hand held camera is present. Zulawski approaches cinema very directly, forcing the viewer, with his cinematographers floating camera, to not witness the events occurring on screen from a stable, fixed position. The camera moves at an intense speed, perfectly reflecting the events and the emotional turmoil that's present in his story.
The film is also decked out in fantastic and apocalyptic images, visually representative of the direction the rest of the directors career would take. Winding staircases leading upward serve as a device used by the characters to distance themselves from the 'void' that they are trying to escape, or in some cases, escape into. Characters are often framed within the frame, placing an emphasis and separation on what is generally a disparate, but relative, image. At the emotional climax of the film the viewer finds Michal running down an endless hallway, encountering room after room of nude, dead representations of himself and his wife. The scene recalls a scene in Jose Benazeraf's Frustration (made the same year as Zulawski's film, but several countries away) as Janine Reynaud's character runs down a hallway encountering room after room of variations on her sister and sister's husband fornicating. The scenes work in the same way in both films, they establish a level of instability and a built up frustration that is emphasized by the endless, inescapable repetition.
The death scenes in the film are also slightly abstracted, portrayed with a level of spurting blood that could match that of a slasher flick from the early 80s. But this is not mere titillation in the same way the overabundance of blood and gore in a slasher movie is, rather, in conjunction with Zulawski's extreme emotions, the extreme blood and gore really emphasizes the weight of the situation. For example, the fantastic element (in this case the over- exaggeration of blood and gore) helps to create a more potent emotional response, which, as Zulawski makes very emotional films, is absolutely coherent within the structure of his films. The blood and gore is not only literal, it's also utterly symbolic of Michal's tense, unsure responses to the world around him after his experiences.
Overall the film is not as developed as some of Zulawski's later works (namely the essential Possession and The Most Important Thing is Love), but it remains a very strong premiere film that displays the characteristics of cinema itself that it's director would go on to develop. It is also one of the most powerful war films that I've ever seen at least, avoiding blanket sentimentality by channeling this presumed emotional response into a complex love story and more universal issues.