aka: The Night the Screaming Stops
France Germany (123 mi) 1981 d: Andrzej Zulawski
I make the films about what is torturing me, and a woman serves here as a medium. —Andrzej Zulawski
This is a break up film that operates on its own wavelength, where one is perhaps better served not trying to figure out the logic behind it, as this is a wrenching glimpse into a psychological disturbance of one’s own making, with extremely violent overtones, where projected thoughts appear as reality in a hallucination-tinged, nightmarish otherworld where surrealism blends seamlessly into the world of reality. If Roman Polanski opened a door of psychic terror as a response to sexual repression in REPULSION (1965), Andrzej Zulawski drives a monster truck through the hole and creates one of the truly strangest and creepiest horror films ever made. Shot in Berlin during the heart of the Cold War, Zulawski uses the underpopulated streets of Berlin much like Nicolas Roeg uses Venice in DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), where the exterior locations match the interior disintegration that is taking place, where the film does express the slow decay of logic and human understanding, where without it, what’s left is a no man’s land of symbolism and surrealist dream imagery where it’s hard to find a coherent thought. Adapted from an original screenplay written by the director after his own divorce to Małgorzata Braunek (the Polish star of his first two movies), this perhaps best expresses the near psychic breakdown that occurs after a failed marriage, where the world is a devastating minefield of hidden disasters just waiting to explode, where in your mind there isn’t a moment that goes by without being filled with a paralyzing jolt of fear at the thought of being alone. Wracked with guilt about the internal shame of failure, the horror of one’s own shortcomings and the powerlessness to do anything about it manifests itself in the external reality, which is itself an utter fabrication, a false illusion, as one puts forth a face that has no basis in reality, but is a sham version of how you really feel. In this film, the delirium of the weaknesses take center stage, where humans evolve into different versions of themselves, like perfect wish fulfillment fantasies, or doomed and hideously grotesque creatures that can only hide from the rest of the world while experiencing an insatiable need for love and sexuality.
From the outset, this self-absorbed couple Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) meet after an undetermined absence and discover the love is gone, that they have nothing but fear and suspicion in their heads, continually overwhelmed by jealous thoughts that they’re each seeing another, where the gulf between them couldn’t be more pronounced. Mark is horribly overbearing, filled with jealousy and rage, where he always needs to be right and picks away at Anna’s confidence as he doesn’t want her to leave, so he tries to bring her down to his level of pure possessiveness. Anna, on the other hand, has grown disgusted by Mark’s tactics, where he’s grown into something of a monster in her eyes, yet she also hates herself for the effect the break up is having on their young son, as suddenly their entire world is fractured, where anything resembling reality is disappearing before her eyes. Forced into exile, as the Communist authorities in Poland prevented the director from working, banning some of his earlier work and then interrupting his work on the set, much of the film’s deranged style must come from the pure idiocy of how he was forced to completely alter his life for seemingly no explanation whatsoever, creating a surreal and supernatural horror picture that’s artful, often showing pictures of the Berlin Wall, yet so over-the-top that its fascination is the strangely weird universe it creates, much like David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD (1977), which is mind-blowingly peculiar. Jump started by the passions of adultery, Mark’s angered and aroused jealousy matches Anna’s interior descent into her own personal Hell, where insanity doesn’t begin to describe her psychic hysteria in one of the more staggering portraits of derangement onscreen, where she comes under the power and control of a blood and goo covered octopus that may represent her shattered interior world, but she’s subject to spasms and fits and nervous tics afterwards, not to mention a scene with an electronic carving knife, reduced to hysterical fits of madness and acts of murder. Still, despite her ruptured and demonic psychological presence, this does not prevent Mark, who has a breakdown of his own, from wanting her back, as his life is the picture of disorder, his apartment a mess, where their child roams around completely unattended, with things strewn all over the floor, where in a VERTIGO (1958) acknowledgement, his son’s school teacher becomes an exact double of Anna, becoming his picture of perfection and order.
Where this all leads is anybody’s guess, where the real jolt, besides an undertone of a dark and hideous side of human nature, is the phenomenal mix of a brilliant sound design by Norman Engel and Karl-Heinz Laabs, demented and highly bombastic music by Andrzej Korzynski, darkened and decaying production design by Jean-José Richer, and slimy monster special effects created by Carlo Rambaldi a year before he invented E.T. (1982), creating a startlingly bizarre world, not the least of which is Heinz Bennett’s exaggerated caricature of Heinrich, Anna’s supposed lover, a whacked out guru comically portrayed in exaggerated gay gestures who contends he is in perfect balance with the world around him, becoming a grotesque enemy of Mark’s creation. But in the middle of all this crazed mayhem is Anna having sex with the octopus, with its tentacles all wrapped around her, where she’s helplessly in the grasp of something she can’t understand, leaving her anguished and tormented, where perhaps the creepiest scene is witnessing her violent breakdown in a deserted subway station where she literally throws herself against the walls screaming at fever pitch, where her convulsions and grotesque body contortions climax with the emission of strange bodily fluids that ooze out of nearly every orifice of her body in what is likely the strangest on-screen birth ever recorded, surpassed only by her need to take it home and start having sex with it, killing anyone who comes anywhere near her prized creature, muttering things like “God is merely a reflection of evil!” This fractured reality film is a head trip veering into so many different directions that it’s hard to keep them all straight, testing the audience’s capacity to endure such a distinctly unique vision of psychological horror that to many is simply incomprehensible, uniquely shot by Bruno Nuytten, often from weird angles, zooming in and around objects, finding strange and disorienting images and compositions, using a grainy film stock with all color drained from the screen, leaving a grey and lifeless texture, as if in this world all oxygen has been sucked out of the air and life as we know it has disappeared from the earth, where all that’s left is entirely a figment of our imagination. The film was thought of as too wildly grotesque when it opened and for the most part was dismissed, even banned during the 80’s in Britain, but it is so individualistically unique, not necessarily always good, that it must be considered highly provocative, emotionally raw entertainment throughout, even if it is expressed with buckets of blood in a gore fest.