Henri de Corinth / May 14, 2019
While religious iconography pervades the entire oeuvre of film director Andrzej Żuławski, three feature films that he made in Poland—Trzecia część nocy (“The Third Part of the Night,” 1971), Diabeł (“The Devil,” 1972), and the unfinished Na srebrnym globie (“On the Silver Globe,” 1977/1988)—and two features in western Europe—Possession (1981) and La femme publique (“The Public Woman,” 1984)—depict and indirectly explore the intersection of religious images and social institutions of the Eastern Bloc. Żuławski arguably saw the depiction of religion in narrative cinema as a means of figurative resistance against those institutions.
Żuławski’s biography and filmography largely support such a reading. His earliest works are closely bound to the Polish romantik tradition, which historically often resisted the Russian Empire and its subjugation of Poland-Lithuania. Żuławski was born into an extended family of artists and intellectuals with a history of dissent and resistance, which forms part of the connective tissue between the so-called “Polish trio.” His great-grandfather Kazimierz was an insurgent in Poland’s January Uprising of 1863 against the Russian Empire’s partitions to the country. His great-uncle Jerzy was a published author and philosopher whose Trylogia księżycowa (“Lunar Trilogy”) novel cycle forms the basis of On the Silver Globe, and who died of typhus in World War I while serving with the Polish Legions. His father Mirosław was a soldier with the Home Army in World War II and later a diplomat who had worked for UNESCO, and who co-wrote The Third Part of the Night, basing it in part on his own experience in the war.
Żuławski’s earliest films were also the product of cultural exchange between Eastern and Western Europe. Several contemporaries of Żuławski—including Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski—who had studied at Poland’s renowned Łodz film school hoped to work in France, while Żuławski, who had studied at France’s Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, was compelled to return to Poland. Viewing Żuławski’s filmography from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s, one will notice a palpable difference stylistically, specifically in the deployment of cinematography. What remains constant across East and West, however, is his mise-en-scene’s reflection of the emotional and even “spiritual” state of certain characters.
One should remember that the Polish productions were state-funded and thus subject to government censorship and even interference, as with The Devil—which the government blocked from being shown publicly in 1972—and On the Silver Globe—the production of which was infamously shut down in 1977 before it could be completed (the film debuted at Cannes in 1988, after additional footage and narration was added). When The Devil was completed, Polish authorities issued the director a passport with orders to leave the country, while at the same time the Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider arranged for her agent to contact Żuławski after she had seen The Third Part of the Night. The two eventually made L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) for French producer Albina du Boisrouvray, which became so successful in Western Europe that it prompted the Polish Embassy to contact Żuławski and ask him to return to Poland. Two years later, the government halted his production of On the Silver Globe, issuing him another passport.
It is in these contexts that the topic of religion in Żuławski’s films acquires a unique dimension. Historically, the population of Poland has been overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, so much so that when Stalin’s government pressed Eastern European satellite countries to parse themselves from the Vatican in 1948, it was only a few years later that the country established a church-state agreement—and then only through secret negotiations. Catholic imagery, scripture, and allegory permeate the Polish trio, while the early 1980s films allude to Catholicism primarily through dialogue and certain iconographic elements.
Taken at face value, the subject of religion in Żuławski’s cinema is an aspect of the sociopolitical realities with which the filmmaker and his collaborators were presented, not unlike Danièle Hermieu-Léger’s conception of religion as a social phenomenon. According to Hermieu-Léger, the forms and nature of religion are predicated on the nature of modernity itself, contemporary religion being the product of—and not an archaic reaction to—modernity. This counters the notion that religion is somehow bound to “tradition,” which is inherently opposed to modernity and change. Żuławski is well known in film circles for his signature kinetic mise-en-scene, provided largely by his long-time cameraman Andrzej Jaroszewicz, and for his directing of manic performances, particularly from leading actresses. These elements can function in this sense as a reflection not simply of ecstatic religious feeling but of the nature of religion vis-a-vis the films’ characters and narrative. At the same time, specific characters and events in Żuławski’s films connote James Arthur Beckford’s notion of religion’s functioning as a cultural resource and not necessarily a social institution—that is, it exists as an intangible thing or force that exists “elsewhere,” outside of an organization or establishment.
“Woe to those who dwell on the earth.”
A refrain throughout The Third Part of the Night is the Apokolypsis—the final book of the Bible commonly translated into English as the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse of John. Characters routinely quote passages from Revelation, which could serve as loose metonymies for events in the film. The film’s title refers to Revelation 8:12, wherein the fourth in a sequence of seven angels sounds a trumpet, throwing the world into darkness. In the passage, an eagle exclaims: “…woe to those who dwell on the earth.” The film opens with mounted Nazi soldiers entering the rural homestead of Michal (Leszek Teleszyński), where they kill his wife Helena (Małgorzata Braunek), their son Lukasz, and Helena’s mother. Michal later meets a woman (Braunek again) who looks exactly like his wife, and becomes embroiled in the resistance against the Nazi occupation.
Though set ostensibly during World War II, The Third Part of the Night, more so than any other film by Żuławski, is not bound by linear time. Aspects of the film could be read heuristically as being about resistance movements in Poland, both during Nazi occupation and implicitly under communism, through the lens of Catholic imagery. Such imagery is ubiquitous throughout the film, always in the background or on the periphery of Michal’s amblings through a landscape tarnished by war. The film is Żuławski’s one and only collaboration with renowned cinematographer Witold Sobociński, whose images reflect a kind of spiritual turmoil on the part of Michal: the streets are often empty and captured in a diffuse light, while surfaces appear in a breadth of grays and browns, suggesting an ancient landscape swept by a plague. Żuławski was born in the former Polish city of Lwow in 1940, one year after the Nazi invasion of the country, and one of his earliest memories was of seeing Nazi soldiers from his family’s apartment window remove Poles from their building, escort them to a field at the end of their street, and shoot them. The film routinely conflates “past” and “present” events, all seen from Michal’s point of view, and thus Michal (and the viewer) is never certain if Braunek’s character is Michal’s wife of the past or someone else entirely. The landscape Michal occupies, then, is one produced by his own emotions resulting from his family’s murder and the war at large: while nearly half of the 6,000,000 Polish citizens killed between 1939 and 1945 were Jewish, the Nazis killed nearly 2,000 priests, over 800 monks, and 300 nuns. The Nazis’ destruction of Warsaw’s Archcathedral of Saint John during the Uprising of 1944 remains a symbol among Poles of the Nazis’ contempt for Slavic institutions, regardless of religious affiliation.
The film also frames its subject through dialogue that either paraphrases or quotes directly from Revelation. When Michal sees what is perhaps a vision of Helena standing at the foot of an outdoor crucifix, Helena says: “Pity, kindness and faith cease to exist when blood has been infected.” Her language is used figuratively, alluding to the film’s depiction of typhus vaccine research by way of lice feeding (literally contaminated blood), but is also symbolic of a nation’s population (a figuratively contaminated soul). Midway through the film, Michal is visited by a masked figure who gives him a Bible with a marked passage that he describes as a “prophecy.” Michal later reads the passage aloud, which is revealed to be Revelation 12: “I ukazał się cud wielki na niebie… (‘…there appeared a wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet. And she being with child cried, pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder: a dragon stood before the woman to devour her child. And there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought the dragon, and the great dragon was cast out.’).” It is in these scenes where Żuławski uses both imagery and scripture allegorically to suggest the resistance movement.
Late in The Third Part of the Night, Michal visits a nun hoping to learn the identity of his wife’s double. When he asks why the convent has housed the woman in his former bedroom, the nun hesitates, and then recites Revelation 17: “I przyszedł jeden z siedmiu Aniołów… (‘…and the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup full of abomination and the filth of her prostitution. And on her forehead was a name: Mystery.’).” She then suggests to Michal that he “save himself” rather then attempt to learn more about the double. Though the nun ends the passage without reciting the figure’s “full name”—referring to her only as “Mystery” (“Tajemnica”)—she is describing the Whore of Babylon, typically associated with the Beast of Revelation or the Antichrist. The exchange between Michal and the nun could infer deception and spycraft on the double’s part.
The film’s iconography suggests the same elsewhere, as with a slow-motion shot of the woman entering a hospital that features a mural depicting the Eye of Providence above a doorway. In Christian tradition, the Eye of Providence has traditionally symbolized the notion of divine providence, or God’s omnipresent watch over all humanity (it also appears on numerous municipal emblems throughout modern Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine). Within the film, one might perceive the image as the hospital’s religious affiliation, but also implying surveillance by the state. With that in mind, the Eye can be understood not just as an allusion to both Nazi surveillance of the Polish population and the Polish resistance’s counter-surveillance, but also as a symbol for the Soviet Union’s surveillance of its satellite countries. Since the end of World War II, the Holy See had refused to recognize Stalin’s post-war government in Poland; given the country’s Catholic heritage, the Eye then stands as a politically-charged image.
“These are fashionable patriotic dances.”
The Devil, based on an original screenplay by Żuławski, takes the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1793 as its setting, and uses the characters and events allegorically to connote the Polish transpositions of March 1968. In September 1793, a treaty enacted during the Russian Empire’s invasion of Poland-Lithuania partitioned the country between Prussia and Austria, suddenly making approximately a million Poles the subjects of Prussia under the Hohenzollern dynasty. Like The Third Part of the Night, The Devil follows a newly-rootless man, Jakub (Teleszyński), through Poland’s desolate landscape. Żuławski sees this landscape as one similar to that of the student protests that took place across Poland in March 1968. These protests were in part a response to the Soviet Union’s dissolving of diplomatic relations with Israel and anti-Semitic state policies (officially called “anti-Zionist” policies by Poland’s government) instituted by Mieczysław Moczar, the Minister of the Interior and head of the secret police. Moczar’s policies ultimately resulted in over 13,000 Jews being exiled from Poland between 1968 and 1972.
In the film, Jakub, who has been incarcerated for attempting to assassinate a monarch, is freed by an unnamed man (Wojciech Pszoniak)—referred to as nieznajomy (“unknown”), though the viewer intuits him to be the titular devil—who suggests to Jakub that he treat him “like a clergyman” or as a “guide” through the film’s phantasmagory. With the expulsions of 1968-1972 in mind, at first glance it seems quaint that the protagonist would be named for the Old Testament prophet Yaakov, who in the Book of Genesis has a dream where he sees angels ascending the sulam yaakov, a ladder leading to heaven. According to rabbinical literature such as the midrash Genesis Rabbah, Yaakov’s vision is understood to be a prophecy of Jewish exile. Like the Yaakov of the Old Testament, the film portrays Jakub as a simpleton, while the Polish countryside and all found in it are seen within the limits of his life experience.
Numerous scenes throughout The Devil refer to the military conflict of 1793 and figuratively to the political conflict of 1968—often by conflating religious rites with armed resistance or patriotism. As Jakub watches a dance held by members of the Polish aristocracy (“…patriotic dances on the grave of an independent homeland”), a priest and flag-bearers intrude and perform an impromptu wedding between an unnamed count (Maciej Englert) and Jakub’s former fiancée (Braunek), also unnamed. The priest states that he and his entourage have come to the dance with the aim of “…saving the miserable, fallen homeland,” equating wedding two people with wedding oneself to one’s nation, or as the film’s dialogue has it, for “…the fate and deliverance of my homeland.”
The only other significant character referred to by name is Ezechiel, who is eventually revealed to be Jakub’s brother. Ezechiel claims to be “…from the confederates,” a possible reference to Poland-Lithuania’s Confederation of Tarjowica, which was formed to defend the country’s integrity during the Russian occupation, demanding in June of 1793 that Russia withdraw from Poland before any negotiation took place. During a scene where Jakub and Ezechiel perform a burial of their father, Ezechiel has a monologue wherein he describes his exploits in the Polish army, saying: “They rose under banners with the picture of the holy virgin to expel foreign troops from Poland, rout the heretics, and eradicate all that wasn’t Polish,” a statement one could take as an allusion to Żuławski’s great-grandfather. The dialogue in these scenes is not unlike the Polish government’s reaction to March 1968, wherein it berated the protesters for lack of patriotism and declared them pawns in a (fabricated) plot of certain government officials who sought to undermine or overthrow the state.
The scenes employing religious imagery together with politically-charged dialogue are offset by those featuring a young nun (Monika Niemczyk). The Devil portrays the nun, also nameless, as an almost idealized instance of earnest religious practice in that she has seemingly no political affiliation. Her scenes in the last third of the film also connote religion as a cultural resource or intangible force that exists “elsewhere” rather than as a concrete organization. She follows Jakub throughout the film, has a repeated habit of looking up to the sky, and on two occasions embraces him immediately after a traumatic experience—the first after he nearly kills his fiancee, and the second after he has two successive incestuous encounters and kills a prostitute. A scene late in the film where she removes her habit for the first time suggests both parity between herself and Jakub and between the film’s physical and emotional landscapes.
Throughout most of The Devil, the Polish countryside is depicted in sunlight and green, while in the last third, snow begins to fall. After she reveals her hair, the nun says: “To jeżyny…dużo jeżyny (‘It is blackberries….many blackberries’).” Jakub responds, saying that there are no blackberries to be found since it is suddenly winter. She may refer to the Hebrew seneh (“blackberry bush”) or to passages from the Book of Isaiah, which describe a land laid to waste, comprised of “…nothing but blackberries and thorns,” and eventually destroyed by fire. According to Christian folklore, after the devil had been cast into hell by Saint Michael, he landed on a blackberry bush, which angered him to the point where he cursed the fruit (this is also where the tradition of baking a blackberry pie for Michaelmas originates). Figuratively, the nun’s dialogue suggests that they have descended into a purgatory-like state, implying the Poland of both the 1790s and 1970s as a land cleared of people, and a people displaced from their land.
“Let us creep into the grace of our resurrection”
On the Silver Globe encompasses Żuławski’s great-uncle’s entire novel cycle—Na srebrnym globie: Rękopis z kiężyca (“On the Silver Globe: Manuscript from the Moon,” 1903), Zwycięzca (“The Conqueror,” 1910), and Stara ziemia (“The Old Earth,” 1911). While set in outer space —the film supplanting the novels’ “moon” setting with an anonymous planet—narratively the first and second halves of the film are analogous with the Old and New Testaments. A group of astronauts crash land on what at first seems to be a desolate, uninhabitable planet. After an arduous journey on foot, they discover a paradise land of trees and water. This story arc involves Marta (Iwona Bielska), Peter (Jerzy Gralek), and Jerzy (Jerzy Trela). Marta gives birth to Tomasz (Leszek Długosz) and Ada (Elzbieta Karkoszka). From her offspring, a new civilization emerges. Jerzy becomes a kind of wandering monk, roaming the mountains and the seashore, delivering dialogues about humankind’s role in the universe. Numerous characters, who later refer to him as the Old Man, remark that he cannot die. Through casting and editing, Żuławski’s film deliberately collapses the notion of linear time in the first half of the film: characters grow from children to adults and from adults into old age from one scene to the next, and an entire civilization emerges in mere minutes. These elements are not unlike the narrative devices one finds in the Old Testament.
Marta’s role in the film suggests that of Eve from the Book of Genesis—the “first parent.” The planet’s atmosphere—described in the novels, alluded to in the film—creates an environment where characters age but do not die (in the novels, bodies die but do not decompose), and their longevity is not unlike those of the biblical prophets who live, ostensibly, for hundreds of years. The character of Ihezal (Graznya Dylag), a descendant of Marta, first appears with eyes painted on both palms. This image immediately registers as a khamsa (Arabic for “five,” also known as the Hand of Miriam to Jews, Hand of Mary to Christians, and Hand of Fatima to Muslims). Jewish rabbinical writings refer to the khamsa’s use as a protective agent against the illness caused by someone’s “evil eye” or malicious stare. Both the novels and film refer to the image of the earth as a kind of malicious “eye” staring at the characters. A monologue delivered by Jerzy mentions as much, describing the surveillance of God while implying the surveillance of earth by the Soviet state: “I was taught that the eye of the world which watches me is the same eye with which I watch the world. This eye is neither cheerful nor evil, neither feeling nor expectant.” The figurative function of the kamsa-eye and the image of earth as seen from elsewhere in On the Silver Globe is thus comparable to that of the Eye of Providence in The Third Part of the Night.
The descendants of Marta (called the “Selenites” in the novels—perhaps a reference to the aliens in H.G. Wells’ First Men on the Moon from 1901—and referred to in the film as the “actors”) are a feral, monk-like society who inhabit underground tunnels, where they have established a de facto “church” and prophecy—namely, that a reincarnation of the Old Man will appear and deliver them from an ancient alien race, called the szernowie (“Sherns”), who are also occupying the planet. When the astronaut Marek (Andrzej Seweryn) arrives to the planet, he is immediately groomed as a “savior” by the inhabitants. After defeating the Sherns, Marek attempts to institute various social and political reforms on the planet, and is eventually executed. Marek’s story arc of course resembles the life of Jesus in the New Testament, particularly as it is written in the Gospel of Luke. (An aspect of Luke that distinguished his book from the other three canonical gospels is its depiction of Jesus as the Son of Man, with greater time spent describing Jesus’ human rather than divine traits.) A monologue in the earliest scenes of the film not only presages the arrival of Marek but suggests the verbiage from Luke: “The father endows him with the seeds of every possibility. What every man nurtures in him will watch it grow in him and bear his fruit. If it is vegetal, he will be a plant. If it is sensual, he will be an animal. If it is intellectual, he will become divine. Finally, if it is intellectual, he will be an angel or the son of man.”
While Marek takes political advantage of the actors’ prophecy, he doubts that he is “divine,” and ponders this idea with a member of an alien race. Throughout the latter half of the film, Marek explores the nature of humanity—specifically the nature of being fully or partially human—in his exchanges with the Sherns and later the Morques, who are Shern-human hybrids. Consider the dialogue in a scene where Marek interrogates a Shern that his army has taken as a prisoner. The prisoner suggests that the “life” of an organism is not entirely bound to biology, alluding to a soul or other unknowable, invisible force.
Marek: Do you want to live?
Shern: I don’t know. What do you think? Am I alive?
Marek: You are an animal, so you are alive.
Shern: Is it only the animal in you that is alive? What about that which lives through that animal?
Jerzy Żuławski wrote the novels in the stylistic modes of his time—namely Polish romantik and the “romantic adventure” template of France’s fin-de-siècle (a comparable work would have been Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires from 1863 to 1905). Andrzej’s film version, conversely, was made in the aesthetic mode of Soviet science fiction, the best-known instance being perhaps Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Like Tarkovsky, On the Silver Globe views the role of religion as being at odds with the protagonists’ political circumstances. While Tarkovsky would often extrapolate the diminished role of religion in Russian public life under Communism, Żuławski’s “Soviet” register portrays communist ideology met with resistance by the church. Marek’s mission to the silver globe is under the auspices of Jacek (Waldemar Kownacki) and the Actress (Krystyna Janda), who are monitoring the mission back on earth. The film’s depiction of earth is derived from the novel—a desolate landscape—while the actions taking place on earth are largely bureaucratic, perhaps an analog for the Soviet authorities. Conversely, Żuławski also depicts the characters as having placed their faith in Marek’s mission, considering a monologue delivered by the Actress: “Because we are sinful and dead, we call from the depths. Let us creep into the grace of our resurrection, melt into your goodness and experience your mercy in order to attain resurrection with you. Mystery, because we are small and dead.”
“Giving it out clean and getting it back dirty.”
The opening of Possession is a montage of Cold War images distinctive to Germany throughout the middle 20th century, intercutting a shot of the iron beams that formed a portion of the Berlin Wall as it stood in 1980 with a shot of a makeshift cross and garland. In doing so, it forms a template for binaries found throughout the film’s landscape, specifically between political ideologies and their subjects. Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy who has returned from somewhere in the Eastern Bloc to West Berlin, where his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and their son Bob (Michael Hogben) reside. It is revealed that Anna has been having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennett). Eventually Anna disappears, renting an apartment on the other side of the city that she shares with an amorphic, tentacled creature. Meanwhile, Mark meets Bob’s teacher Helen (Adjani again), who looks exactly like Anna, and begins an affair with her. Żuławski based the screenplay on his own divorce from Małgorzata Braunek, with whom he had a son, Xawery. Possession is in some ways a story of marital dissolution as an analog of spiritual and political exile. The narrative arc of Mark has some parity with that of Michal in The Third Part of the Night and Jakub in The Devil: all three men lose their families and supplant them with another. Jakub befriends a nun with whom a latent sexual attraction develops, and Michal and Mark meet their wives’ doppelgängers.
A recurring image in Possession is of a family member positioning another’s arms in a crucifixion pose after an item of clothing is removed. When Mark returns to the apartment after Anna disappears, he finds Bob alone with his shirt soiled. Mark removes Bob’s shirt, stops to ponder Bob’s torso, and holds Bob’s arms up. There is a later scene where Anna holds Mark’s arms up in a similar pose after removing his bloodied shirt. Both scenes equate biological connections to spiritual connections between characters. A distinguishing characteristic of Catholicism is its insistence of Christ’s physical body as a tangible object that one can miraculously touch and taste (transubstantiation). Anna and Mark’s dialogue following the crucifixion pose in the latter scene bolsters this idea:
Anna: Do you believe in God?
Anna: It’s in me.
The film’s collapse of tangible and intangible objects reaches an apex with its infamous “miscarriage” scene, which takes place in a U-Bahn tunnel. Says Anna, who recalls the scene in flashback: “What I miscarried there was Sister Faith and what was left was Sister Chance.” Her dialogue establishes a de facto binary between faith—be it religious faith or a religious institution—and chance, alluding to the social circumstances with which the residents of West Berlin were faced at the time. Anna’s implied relationship to religion as an intangible object rather than as an institution is given a tangible form in the U-Bahn tunnel (in the original script, the fluid left behind by Anna’s miscarriage combines with debris left behind by a construction crew). The miscarriage takes place apropos of something unknown and unseen. Anna enters into a fit of spasms and screams, and while she essentially “gives birth” in the scene, it recalls images of church attendees experiencing an ecstatic moment.
One might compare this scene to the film’s portrayal of the church as an institution that one can see. What Żuławski implied in The Third Part of the Night he explicates in Possession, emphasizing religious institutions with the depiction of built structures and their demolition. This is perhaps due to the rhetorical use of architectural structures in Cold War era Berlin, the most prominent being the symbolic use of the Berlin Wall vis-a-vis physical places of worship. With Catholic iconography specifically, that symbolic use appears in a sequence where Anna visits the Friedenskirche zum Heiligen Sava (Peace Church of Saint Sava). In reality the church was built in 1888 for a Lutheran denomination, though the film’s interior suggests a Catholic church, as the viewer sees Anna kneeling from a birds-eye-angle, while a following reverse shot reveals the angle to be, ostensibly, from the point of view of a crucified Christ figure. She eventually leaves, and the film cuts to a wide shot of the church.
The Friedenskirche is constructed in the medieval style known as backsteingotik (“baked stone” or “brick” gothic), which was relatively common across Northern Central Europe up until the turn of the sixteenth century. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Berlin resident might have easily associated the image of a backsteingotik church with that of Berlin’s Versöhnungskirche (Church of Reconciliation), which faced the Bernaurstraße between Strelitzerstraße and Ackerstraße. From the earliest construction of the wall in 1961—the original bricks symbolically blocked the church’s entrance—to the church’s demolition in 1985, it was located entirely inside the wall’s so-called “death strip,” thus preventing anyone from entering the church (in those 25 years, border guards repurposed the structure as an observation tower). The Versöhnungskirche then became something of a symbol for the ideological division between the two Germanies regarding the practice of religion. Like the Eye of Providence in The Third Part of the Night or the kamsa-eye of On the Silver Globe, the physical structure of a church in Possession functions as a politically charged image given the film’s landscape.
With that it mind, the demolition of dwellings in Possession mirrors that of institutional structures in Soviet-controlled Berlin. After Mark destroys the apartment where Anna and the creature reside, a woman on the street hysterically cries out, with the Berlin Wall in plain sight: “God’s light avenge them! Giving it out clean and getting it back dirty!” The film ends with a sequence comparable to the readings from Revelation in The Third Part of the Night, wherein the city of Berlin is destroyed. One might read the sequence as a subtle allusion to the development of missile defense systems throughout the Eastern Bloc as early as the 1950s (which we now know were well in advance of the West, technologically), though it ultimately capstones Possession as an absurdist allegory of the Cold War.
“Cinema merely follows things, like a little drum.”
La femme publique is arguably as much a film about immigration in relation to freedom of religious and artistic practice as it is a film about acting. Ethel (Valérie Kaprisky) is an aspiring actress who meets Lucas (Francis Huster) in a casting office. He’s immediately smitten with her, and casts her in his film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Bésy (“The Possessed”). Throughout the film, one sees news footage describing a “revival of the Catholic Church” under a Lithuanian archbishop’s leadership. It is gradually revealed that Lucas and his acquaintance Milan (Lambert Wilson) are immigrants from then-Soviet satellite state Czechoslovakia, and may have conspired to assassinate the archbishop—not unlike a similar conspiracy between Jakub and the count in The Devil. It is also worth noting that the film’s assassination subplot is an invention of the script by Żuławski and Dominique Garnier, and does not appear in the source novel of the same name by Garnier. Whereas the novel addresses how one’s performative identity changes in relation to social circumstances—specifically the acting world of Paris in the late 1970s and early 1980s—the film incorporates the performative dimensions of religious and political praxis into the narrative.
The film teems with associations between the religious identity of characters and religious figures. Early scenes taking place between Ethel and her mother suggest that their family may be of Russian Jewish descent, as the viewer sees a set of Russian dolls in her mother’s bedroom, where she states that she has “…always been a bit meshugganah [the Yiddish slang for ‘crazy’].” When Ethel dyes her hair red later in the film, Lucas tells her that she looks “…like an old Jewish hag.” Ethel does this in the first place, however, to adopt the physical appearance of Lucas’ previous muse, the redheaded Elena (Diane Delor). Her appropriation of Elena’s appearance eventually extends to clothing, which is distinguished by the color green. Throughout the history of New Testament imagery, green was often associated with Mary Magdalene, who is described as wearing green in the gospels (in antiquity, wearing the color often identified one as a prostitute, which is thought to be a possible origin of the song “Greensleeves”). In a scene where Ethel is draped in a green sheet and standing in front of Elena’s jacket—also green—she finds Elena’s entrance visa and passport, which reveal her status as a Czechoslovak citizen. Żuławski establishes a visual association between the color green as an abstract religious image indicating defection from the Eastern Bloc.
A refrain in La femme publique features Ethel reciting a monologue for the production of The Possessed: “All you want is to imprison me here with you and show me that here inside the wardrobe is a giant spider, as big as a man, and we will spend the rest of our lives staring at it, admiring it, knowing it… and this spider would be God.” Spiders appear on an almost routine basis throughout Dostoyevsky’s novels, serving different narrative functions, be they analogs for a character’s thoughts and feelings, the subjects of dreams, or otherwise. Ethel’s monologue equates a spider with God, which is a recurring theme in certain protestant traditions (consider the spider in Bergman’s Persona), but in a more abstract sense reflects the “unseen” aspect of religion described in Dostoyevsky’s novel, which depicts at once Russia on the eve of a democratic revolution and its population drifting from the moral foundations provided by the church as an institution—two subjects that naturally interest Lucas, an immigrant from a Soviet satellite country. In Żuławski’s time, Dostoyevsky was long considered a suitable author for film adaptation in the Soviet satellite states such as the director’s native Poland or Lucas and Milan’s native Czechoslovakia. Since becoming a Soviet satellite in 1945, Czechoslovakia almost exclusively privileged film and stage adaptations of Russian authors.
Further, Lucas might stand in for Żuławski himself in that both are artists originally from the Bloc who came to prominence largely in France. Immediately after Ethel’s spider monologue, Lucas, who had been directing her, begins to weep to himself. He explicates the religious divide—and by extension the political divide—between East and West in an earlier monologue where he explains to Ethel that, before arriving in France, he shot films in Germany “…against those who no longer fear god,” implying that he has religious beliefs or at least is tolerant of religious beliefs—none of which were acceptable under Soviet rule (the scene also implies the numerous collaborations between Czechoslovakia and West Germany on film productions that took place throughout the 1980s, the best known being Forman’s Amadeus, released the same year as La femme publique). At another point Lucas tells Ethel that “…cinema merely follows things, like a little drum,” a statement mirrored by Żuławski’s later definition of an artist in Skoczen’s documentary Żuławski o Żuławskim (2000) as “like a sort of alarm bell […] one must ring when something isn’t right.”
In the introduction to the same documentary, the director equated cinema at large to being a means of passing through a wall: “…that moment in the cinema when I saw what it’s all about. People on the screen pretending to experience things. It was like a gate in a dark wall. There was a great dark wall—war, communism, Stalinism, whatever they created—and there was a gate. If I got there and talked with these people, it would be like talking to angels.” Here he acknowledges both communist regimes and religious imagery as a foil to those regimes.