The Third Part of the Night

English Title: The Third Part of the Night

Original Title: Trzecia część nocy

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Polski State Film

Director: Andrzej Żuławski

Producer(s): Barbara Pec-Slesicka

Screenplay: Andrzej Żuławski, Mirosław Żuławski

Cinematographer: Witold Sobociński

Editor: Halina Prugar-Ketling

Runtime: 105 minutes

Genre: Horror/Surrealist/War

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Małgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszyński, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Goliński, Anna Milewska

Year: 1971

Volume: East European

During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, a young man named Michal is staying with his family in the countryside after an illness. Returning from a walk in the woods with his father, he witnesses the murder of his wife Helena and son Lukasz by soldiers on horseback. Back in the city, he joins the resistance and is wounded when a secret meeting is ambushed by the Gestapo. As he escapes up the stairs of a building, he is saved when his pursuers mistake another man for him and take him away. When the captured man’s distraught, heavily pregnant wife Marta goes into labour, Michal has no choice but to assist her. She looks identical to his deceased wife, and seeing this as a second chance he supports her and the baby by returning to his former employment as a lice feeder at a medical institute, working to produce a typhus vaccine. Riddled by guilt, he attempts to mount a rescue operation to save Marta’s husband from the Gestapo.


Trzecia część nocy/The Third Part of the Night was Andrzej Żuławski’s directorial debut, and marked the emergence of a major (though, like Roman Polański and Jerzy Skolimowski, not long-lived) new voice in Polish cinema. It was inspired by the wartime experiences of his father Mirosław, who co-wrote the script after collaborating with his son on two literary adaptations for Polish television.


Central to the story is Rudolf Weigl’s Institute in Lvov (where Żuławski was born), which fabricated a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Like many Polish intellectuals, Mirosław was employed there during the war, and involved in a project whereby cages of lice would be attached to the legs to feed on a person’s blood. The insects would then be infected with typhus and their intestines dissected to prepare the vaccine. Many intellectuals and underground resistance fighters worked at this institution on this particular form of research and development because lice feeders were given identity papers, and fear of infection kept the occupying Germans away. 


From the opening of The Third Part of the Night, a reading from the Book of Revelations heard over desolate shots of rural landscapes, it is clear that this is not a straightforward war film. The Polish underground is evoked through a few elliptical snapshots, but no significant actions: the gunning down of a man; a pursuit by the Gestapo; and the existential musings of the blind leader of the movement. The dominant dark-blue colours bathe the film in an oppressive, eerie glow, and the hand-held camera limits the field of vision and heightens the impression of ominous dread and disorientation; whilst the lice-feeding functions as much as a symbol for the apocalyptic times as an unbelievable historical reality, signalling that the world has descended into a surreal nightmare in which people are physically and figuratively drained – one character, for example, is talked of as collapsing mentally after being fed on in this manner, as though his very identity had been taken away along with his blood.


The swarming insects represent not just the bewildering horrors of wartime, but also its ambiguities. Lice-feeding is ‘loathsome’ in Michal’s words, yet it also offers protection from the Germans. It is a powerful image for a world where everything has become ambivalent, where certainties, moral and perceptual, are denied. The idea that the old world has collapsed is expressed by Michal’s father, and it is paralleled by the dissolving of Michal’s grasp on reality, as he is alone in seeing a resemblance between Helena and Marta; and where Helena appeared ruthless and cruel, Marta seems gentle and vulnerable, as if the double incarnation of his lover expressed Michal’s ambivalence towards her, as well as the unreliability of his perceptions.


This loss of moral and perceptual certainty is triggered both by the collective trauma of the German occupation and by Michal’s personal struggle to adjust to fatherhood. His sense of shock is made evident by the scene of Marta’s labour: Żuławski cut footage of a real childbirth into the film, splicing reality and fiction, which, as with the lice-feeding, highlights the strangeness of life. And while this duplication of the family is seen by Michal as a chance to be a better father, the motif of the double has a fatal circularity. Michal and Marta repeat Michal and Helena’s actions, and in the final sequence Michal faces himself in a dead end prefigured in the earlier escape scene. Michal’s flight from the Gestapo up the spiral staircase in Marta’s building in fact offered no issue – except maybe a passage to another dimension of reality, or death.


Żuławski would replicate this scene ten years later in the notorious Possession (1981), a film that strongly echoes his debut. It similarly charts the disintegration of a couple against a historically charged background – here, a divided Berlin – using a central doppelgänger motif. In Possession, Żuławski fully embraced his tendency to excess, literally materialising the monstrous, grotesque side of reality more obliquely evoked in The Third Part of the Night, but both films offer a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with the nightmares of the human mind.

Author of this review: Virginie Sélavy