Saturday, March 17, 2012

Andrzej Zulawski's The Devil (Diabel) at BAM

After a sole one day break from BAM playing non-stop Andrzej Zulawski films spanning his entire career, Friday night started the tail end of the series (5 films remaining) with Zulawski's second feature film, The Devil. This rather disturbing and surreal film was made in 1972, a year after his masterful debut, The Third Part of the Night. The Devil is a veiled criticism of student riots that took place in Warsaw in 1968. Zulawski transplants the seeds of this story of corruption and sets the nightmarish proceedings at the end of the 18th century when the Prussian army invaded Poland. The mask worn on this film was seen through by the Polish government as Zulawski's film was banned for nearly two decades and it resulted in him leaving Poland to live and work elsewhere.

The Devil begins with total chaos as a strange man (Wojciech Pszoniak) dressed from head to toe in black enters a convent looking to take two individuals out of the extremely violent environment depicted. The stranger succeeds in removing Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski, who also stars in Zulawski's The Third Part of the Night) along with a nun. Jakub is told by the mysterious man to ride a horse given to him back to his home. Upon his return home, Jakub sees a wasteland of a world gone made all around him.

A wave of grim, crazed and blood filled sequences leave Jakub at a complete loss with the insane world that he finds himself in. Jakub finds out that his father is now dead, his mother has become a whore, his sister has lost her mind and his fiancee (played by Zulawski's first wife, Malgorzata Braunek who also starred in The Third Part of the Night) is now in a forced relationship with a long time friend who has taken advantage of the cracked political climate. The madness on display coupled with the man in black periodically reappearing telling Jakub to cleanse situations around him leads Jakub on a feverish killing spree.

Zulawski directs this film with more emphasis on hand held camera movements. There is a compelling energy felt throughout largely due to the ever moving and constantly on edge camera perspective. Making the film even more of an intensive sensory experience is Andrzej Korzynski's psychedelic rock soundtrack. In a daring and fresh way, the period drama is contrasted with a modern rock styling. That being said, Korzynski's sound in this film is shrouded in a haze of heavily processed sounds, making the electric guitar and bass reaching near synthesizer type textures at times.

In a way that echoes The Third Part of the Night, Zulawski shifts a political story into the realm of unmitigated horror. Strangely, The Devil is less polished and more rough around the edges yet it works to the advantage of the chaotic underpinnings. This is a staggeringly angry and seemingly cathartic work that shines harsh light on the evil spirit of a corrupt society. Jakub senselessly murders countless individuals who consist of family, friends and acquaintances. The strange man in black guides Jakub through these killings and serves as the embodiment of political manipulation.

BAM screened a rare print of The Devil that was both strong and decent in terms of print quality. Large passages of the film looked quite fine while projected though reel changes were certainly rather rough with jagged transitions at several points. Given the extreme rarity of the screening, it was awesome to finally see this film in 35mm. At the moment, the existing DVD versions I've seen are dreadful. I'm sure the unbelievable Mondo Vision label will change all of that when they are able to release The Devil.