Recently released for the first time ever on DVD by the excellent Second Run label, this screening preceded a Q&A with Zulawski, who was on fine form, and both insightful and revealing about this film and the rest of his work. Zulawski’s debut is partly based on the experiences of his father during the Second World War, and it’s quite staggering how this nightmarish world could possibly have been born out of real events in any way. The protagonist, Michael, is recuperating in the countryside after an illness, with his wife and son also present, although this is also for their own safety since the German invasion has made Warsaw too dangerous for them. After a walk one day, he returns to find his wife and child murdered with cruel abandon by German soldiers.
This encourages him to join an underground collective, but when his co-conspirator is killed, Michael has to run for his life. In a twist of fate, another man is mistaken for him, and is shot on a winding staircase; a scene that was later reprised in the climax of Zulawski’s ‘Possession’, filmed a decade later. Guilt-ridden, he finds the man’s wife, only to discover she is the double of his own dead wife (doppelgangers were a central feature of the aforementioned ‘Possession’). She is on the verge of giving birth, and he assists with the delivery of the child, which triggers flashbacks of his own son being born.
Michael then seeks to replace the man who was mistaken for him (who is still alive, but was taken by the Nazis and routinely interrogated and beaten), and look after his wife’s double and her child, which allows him to cope with the guilt of her husband’s fate and also the death of his own wife and child. More flashbacks reveal the lurid origins of their relationship; that Helena had been married and Michael destroyed this marriage by conducting an affair with Helena (their love is declared in a superb 360° swirl of the camera). In order to provide for his new family, Michael works at a clinic that is developing a cure for typhus, which includes feeding lice, which is precisely what Helena’s first husband had done.
Making love to his wife’s double, she explains that they are “reconciled in people who aren’t us”. As the German advance continues, everyone else in Michael’s life is dying; his sister, a nun, is captured by the Germans and taken away, his hysterical father sets his house on fire, and his fellow accomplices in the underground are targeted. Whether it is out of guilt or just curiosity, Michael resolves that he must seek out the man mistaken for him, which is suicidal in itself. In a hallucinatory conclusion, he finds the man in the hospital chained, beaten, but smiling. Escaping through a life shaft, he reaches the morgue, which has a dead body ominously lying beneath sheets. When he looks at who the dead body is, he is finally reconciled with himself.
The final scene of ‘Third Part of the Night’ is shocking, but probably won’t be too unique to viewers as it’s been borrowed in subsequent films. As already mentioned, Zulawski’s own ‘Possession’ borrows various conceits from this film; the use of doubles and mistaken identity in particular. Are these doubles different ‘versions’ of Michael and Helena, whose lives exist in a different time and place entirely, but are interrupted when Michael and his double are mistaken for each other? As his own family are dead, does Michael have to put things right by assuming the role of this man? His overwhelming sense of guilt dictates that he must. However, in a time when all those around him are dying, Michael’s own mortality is equally perilous. Death ominously hangs in the air. In his final attempt to resolve natural order, he meets the conclusion that was always destined for him. The sight of his dead self could be either a premonition or a vision of what should have been – you could reasonably argue for both interpretations, but it concludes a nightmarish and hypnotic film perfectly. Michael’s life has indeed come full circle.