There are moments in war that almost seem too barbaric to have ever happened, and then there are those places such as Weigl Institute in Lwów, Poland, where the work was so completely bizarre yet sanely conducted to make it possible to save lives that it could not be imagined by the brightest minds of fiction. During the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War Two, Polish biologist Rudolf Weigl created the first effective vaccine against typhus, which was killing thousands every day during the war. At the institute, Weigl would place lice into a matchbox sized contraption that had a screen on one side, which would be mounted onto the legs of people who would be paid in extra rations to be blood donors for the lice. The lice would be drained of blood in order to create a typhoid vaccine that was not only given to the Nazis but also snuck out to the ghettos of Poland, saving countless infected people. For his intended lice feeders, Weigl would employ Polish underground agents, Jews, and Polish intellectuals to spare them from being taken to camps. One of these men who would be saved by Weigl by being employed as a “lice feeder” was Miroslaw Żuławski, the father of Andrzej Żuławski, the director of the film I will review this week, “The Third Part Of The Night.”
For anyone who has seen any film directed by Andrzej Żuławski these last forty four years knows that surrealistic imagery and a fantastic narrative are standard in all of his films but never has his work felt as personal as it is here with his debut work. Andrzej was born in Poland in November of 1940, a little more than a year after the German occupation of his homeland, which means that most of the story that plays out here occurred while he was still a young child, while his father Miroslaw (who co-wrote the screenplay) was a member of Związek Walki Zbrojnej, an underground army formed to undermine the invaded Nazi forces in Poland and, as such, was hidden by Weigl and at times “fed lice” in order to keep his affiliation with the underground army a secret.
The title and much of the framework of the film are derived from The Book Of Revelation, which in the mostly Roman Catholic country of the Zulawskis, naturally plays an important part in understanding the immense guilt the protagonist of Michal feels, which starts at the very beginning of the film when Nazi cavalry subbing in for the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, ride into Michal’s stately country home and slaughter his wife and son. Michal and his father witness the killings from afar and escape to the town of Lwów where Michal (Leszek Teleszynski), an intellectual and violinist like his father, joins the resistance to make a difference in the war. Michal is immediately sent on a mission, which turns out to be a trap and results in his partner being killed and Michal wounded. Seeking refuge from the Nazis, Michal ducks into an apartment building stairwell where he watches in terror as a similarly dressed man is mistaken for him and taken away in a moment eerily reminiscent of a scene from Andrzej Wajda’s first feature film “Generation.” Michal then ascends the stairs into the arrested man’s apartment only to find the man’s wife, who is bears a striking resemblance to Michal’s own wife, Helena, in labor. Michal helps the woman deliver her child and now, due his guilt and complicity in her husband’s capture, must find a way to take care of her and support his new family.
In a way, Michal is given a second chance in life and tries to rectify his past cowardice by being there for his new family, yet his conscience is never truly clear as his dead son appears throughout the film to add to his guilt. These early scenes are punctuated with what would become a staple of all of Żuławski’s work for years to come: the erratic and unchained handheld camerawork and blue-green color scheme, here done by Witold Sobocinski who also lensed films for master Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whom Żuławski worked under for years prior to his feature debut. The music here also deftly adds to the hellish goings on and is scored by Andrzej Korzynski, another Wajda regular, who creates a mix of Ennio Morriconesque over distorted stick guitar and experimental/industrial samples.
Once Michal resides himself to the task of becoming his doppelganger’s wife’s sole support, it is off to the Weigl Institute (the actual institute was used for these scenes), where he is told to sit with a group of men as he voluntarily ties boxes of lice to his legs as to become a human feeding station. These factually based scenes of intellectuals, giving their blood for self-preservation and voluntarily carrying a disease become the perfect metaphor for the absurdity of war. Żuławski and Sobocinski highlight these moments with clinical close-ups of the feeding and subsequent removal of the blood from the lice that seem to come from Dante more than the pages of a history book. Michal’s ascent from simply a feeder to lab technician who extracts the tainted blood seems to happen easily, but it still does not lead to any sort of victory against evil as the world around Michal descends into deeper madness, leading him back the futility of mounting any resistance in the face of the oncoming apocalypse. This sentiment is made clear with the title sequence of the film which references Revelation 8:12-13:
The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night. Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!”
A Trailer For The Third Part Of The Night
The actual closing of the Weigl Institute was not brought on by the Nazis but by the invading Russian forces whom, due the terms defined by the Pottsdam Conference, would soon claim Lwów, Poland as part of the USSR and eventually as a town in the Ukraine. The Nazis, as brutal as they were to the Jews, would at least allow the Polish Roman Catholics to practice their faith unlike the invading Communists, and Żuławski, in an interview conducted in 2004, finds this fact more distasteful than the Nazi occupation. The oncoming apocalypse may be seen in terms of replacing one Satan with another, making all attempts at defeating the Nazis just so the Soviets could resume a more severe process of dictatorship as futile a gesture as trying the stave off the impending Biblical prophecy of an end of days that will most assuredly come. In this world, for Michal, the only recourse to attain peace is the complete acceptance of his fate in the presence of something greater than it all.