The Third Part of the Night, Trzecia Czesc Nocy (1971)
Directed by: Andrzej Zulawski
Written by: Andrzej Zulawski, Miroslaw Zulawski
Starring: Anna Milewska, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Leszek Teleszynski, Malgorzata Braunek
THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT (1971)
aka Trzecia Czesc Nocy
Co-written and Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Polish Language with English Subtitles
Available in the Andrzej Zulawski: Three Films Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment
After his mother, wife and young son are slaughtered by Nazi soldiers at their rural estate, Michal returns to the city to join the resistance. When things don’t go as planned and he inadvertently gets an innocent man imprisoned, Michal decides to help out the victim’s wife and newborn baby. Her likeness to his deceased wife compels him to do whatever it takes to keep them safe, but upon joining the lice-feeder programme, he begins to lose grip on reality.
Set during the war in Nazi-occupied Poland, Andrzej Zulawski’s debut feature film THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT is a captivating watch that explores how dangerous life in Poland was during that time. With the gestapo on the prowl to lock up any dissenters, the resistance army have to keep everything low key but sometimes things don’t go as planned.
The film also shows what life was like for the average citizen. I hadn’t a clue about the lice-feeding activities that were going on, so to see these men and women signing up to have lice suck and feed on their blood and to later infect them with typhus, all with the intention of creating a vaccine, was fascinating to see but also incredibly sad. These people were compelled to become lunch for these parasites and to become ill in order to receive more ration coupons to feed themselves and their family, which is why lead character Michal enrols – to feed the mother and baby he is indebted to.
THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT may be a drama but it has a looseness and surreal quality to it that blurs the story to the point where we can’t quite tell what is going on. Faces morph between that of his dead wife and the woman he is now caring for. His young son hides in the shadows, watching the pair as they bond together. The frantic elements of Michal balancing his life as part of the resistance and living life as a civilian worker teeters on the edge. Like all the Polish citizens, every day they’re living in a nightmare but one they cannot awaken from. This dreamlike quality to the film adds a disorienting vibe to the movie which perfectly depicts the suffocating lifestyle which Michal is experiencing. Everyone he meets, even his sister at the convent, are feeling the pressures of the society that is crumbling around them due to the war and invasion. Michal has already lost so much. Escaping with his life at the rural retreat, he’s compelled to do right and believes he can still save them through his actions he does whilst he’s alive.
The film takes advantage of its location, with some brilliant shots including the Gestapo chase scene which sees Michal flee through ginnels and side streets, and up the stairs of an apartment building. The cat and mouse chase really throws the viewer into the middle of it and the frightening chaos of what it must be like to experience running for your life. Later on, we have scenes at the lice-feeding lab, which are quite detailed to show the different stages of testing, from placing the cages around the leg to the lice clamp where the lice are injected anally with typhus bacteria, to the eventual dissection of the lice’s abdomen to be ground up into a paste for the vaccine. All this happened at the Weigl Institute in Lviv with Andrzej Zulawski’s own father Miroslaw having been a guinea pig himself at the labs during World War II.
Throughout the movie, a soft jazz-style score is interweaved with the visuals that wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of long-running murder mystery series. It’s quite noticeable at first but then the film kind of slides into this vibe where reality isn’t quite what we’re seeing. In a way, this is reflecting the mental state of Michal who is doing whatever it takes to cope with the world that is falling around him.
Andrzej Zulawski’s flair for storytelling is haunting. It balances story by putting the viewer through an experience, not unlike the works directed by David Lynch. The horror, fear and grief is palpable in THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT, reflecting a period in history that no-one should have to endure.