by Nicholas Rombes
Andrzej Żuławski died on February 17 in Warsaw, Poland, less than 300-miles away from where he was born, in Lviv, in 1940.
Żuławski. The name doesn’t ring a bell. Not in the same way that Polanski, or Antonioni, or Corman, or Lynch do.
And yet, even without knowing it, you have fallen under his spell. You have seen his work quoted, indirectly, in other films, other films that are mere bathtub ripples compared to the sea-churning violence his work unleashes. A violence of the mind as much as of the body. A time-rending violence, embodied and deep and sediment-heavy and ancient and wobbly in its unfamiliarity with gravity.
Imagine that if in order to see something you had to do more than merely look at it; you instead had literally to rub your eyeballs on the object. In some Żuławski scenes that’s what it feels like. For those of us who did not directly experience the Eastern European, Cold War-era regimes of repression, there is dark and elliptical political undercurrent to Żuławski’s work that we can only feel intuitively and dimly, a sense of paranoia and dread that make all his films political even when they are not explicitly “political.” Exile. Censorship. While these words are abstractions to some of us, the fact that Żuławski’s films make us feel—feel exiled, alienated—is a testament to their otherworldly power.
I do not use the term otherworldly as a metaphor. I mean it in a literal, Detroit sense, the sort of sense that only radical art, and philosophy, can capture and make real and present. In his book In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker writes that “horror is not simply about fear, but instead about the enigmatic thought of the unknown.” Żuławski has said that the tentacled creature at the heart of Possession is the monster “in the attic,” inspired by fairytales, and yet, for this viewer at least, the unknown, the monster in Żuławski’s films is the camera itself, tracking and prowling and harassing the characters, or more often simply lingering, floating, observing patiently but actively, as in this clip from Possession, as the camera waits for Anna (Isabelle Adjani) to enter the frame, and then slowly follows her while sweeping across the room to take her seat next to her estranged husband Marc (Sam Neill). The first edit, weirdly violent, doesn’t happen until the :49 mark.
Or, the crazed, hyperventilating single shot that lasts from the beginning of this clip from On the Silver Globe until the :35 mark. In a signature Żuławski move, the camera beings by rushing toward the character, only to have him take off in the opposite direction. The film—begun in 1975, ordered destroyed by the Polish authorities, and finally released in 1988—is as turbulent and haunted as its production history.
There are films that make you feel alive, films that remind you that, for better or for worse, you are a human being on this cursed planet. And then there are films that remind you that they, too, are alive. Alive and breathing and waiting. They leak off the screen and pool in dark corners like beads of mercury. There’s a poison to them, something toxic, but also something disarming in their absurdity and in the raw physical act of human beings fighting and loving and becoming. . .
In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes.” It’s that becoming that terrifies in Żuławski’s films, as if they could somehow think and feel on their own, unleashed by their creator, mercilessly amorphous and sentient, watching us.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the forthcoming novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio Press) and Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.