Polish cinematography boasts a handful of films with Nazi-occupied Poland as the main theme. War lies at the bottom of defining the nature of Polish identity and that is why it is so important to watch Polish war films. Andrzej Żuławski’s “The third part of the night” from 1971 by no means belongs to the same category of films such as Andrzej Wajda’s war films, e.g. “Landscape After Battle” from the 70s or “Katyn” from 2007. In fact, Żuławski’s films never fit into categories easily whereas their provocative and obscene content elicits much controversy.
Even though “The third part of the night” is not new, I had the chance to see it in Kino Palacowe in Centrum Kultury Zamek. “Watch and Talk Polish Cinema” is a cyclical event which enables people who do not speak Polish to see the milestones of Polish cinematography with English subtitles. Every month, there is another film on the agenda. As the name suggest, it is not only watching films but also talking about them. The films are often controversial, which arouses a lively discussion among the viewers. The event is surely interesting for both Poles and foreigners. The latter can see a Polish film on a big screen whereas the former get to know the totally new perspective of looking at the films from their own cultural and historical background.
In “The third part of the night”, the images of Poland under Nazi occupation are juxtaposed with the depiction of madness caused by the horrors of war. It makes one’s blood curdle to see what it is like to live in the times of war. Although the film shows the streets strewn with rubble and bloody encounters of the Polish underground with Nazi officers, the focus is on the swirl of the main character’s emotional state and his inevitable lunacy.
Another very important aspect of the film concerns the profession of Michał, the main character. He works as a lice feeder, a common job in Nazi-occupied Poland. Packs of lice are attached to the bare legs of the subjects and they feed on their blood. Later, they are injected with typhus germs. Strange as it may sound, such a practice is not only a surreal, imaginative addition to the plot but is entirely based on fact.
The medical experiment was initiated by a Polish scientist, Rudolf Weigl, who wanted to find a vaccine for typhus. People agreed to work as lice feeders as it gave them protection from slave labour and concentration camps. Interestingly enough, one of such people was the father of the director, Mirosław Żuławski. Both the father and the son are credited with the screenplay of “The third part of the night”.
The usual war films are much focused on collective nationalist consciousness-raising and a faithful depiction of the war-ridden country. Here, the realistic vision gives way to a flamboyant blend of dreams, nightmares, madness and people’s sufferings. Would this kind of vision appeal more to the mind of an ordinary person? Is it that perhaps this kind of film would be more effective in dissuading people from pro-war thinking than any other realistic war film depicting bloody battles and random deaths? It is very much possible that such horrendous images of war are more likely to make the viewer realize the detriments any war entails. War films should be shown to educate people about terror, and this film is definitely a must.