I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Andrzej Żuławski: A Man Possessed

by David Selden
Aug. 28, 2013

Andrzej Żuławski’s “intellectual horror film”, Possession begins with the protagonist’s return from an unspecified but apparently dangerous assignment. In an empty room at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Mark’s employers plead with him to stay but he is adamant. His “subject” (and his pink socks) will elude them for now. Returning to his bland apartment in a 70’s housing complex, Mark (played somewhat woodenly by Sam Neil), finds his wife is leaving him for Heinrich, an intellectual martial arts expert with a wardrobe of silk shirts.

Possession Poster A

From there the film spirals into a queasy out of control psycho-drama, with acts of gratuitous violence appearing out of the blue with increasing frequency. Schlock is piled upon schlock until it almost becomes a bonfire of all the vanities of European art house cinema of this period, as well as being a cathartic scream and (perhaps) a pitch black comedy in the tradition of the Grande Guignol.

Żuławski, a protégé of Andrej Wadja, was never a director shy of overstatement. Here in Possession, his first and only English language film, scripted in the midst of a messy divorce case, he piles it on thick with doppelgangers, sexual desire run amok and gnomic utterances like, “for me God is a disease.”

Nonetheless, like the director’s subsequent films, Mad Love and On the Silver Globe (as previously featured here on Network Awesome), Possession is worth persisting with for its unprecedented barrage of >WTF!< set pieces. As Variety observed, “Possession starts on a hysterical note, stays there and surpasses it as the film progresses”i.

If Neil is somewhat wooden in Possession, Adjani is working overtime playing Anna, Mark’s murderous wife. A five minute sequence in the U-Bahn, in a wonderfully grubby Kreuzberg, has her performing a hysterical Ausdruckstanz as she gives birth to a monster. Elsewhere she is genuinely moving and understated but mostly just terrifying.

Heinz Bennent is also compelling as Heinrich, a camp old silver fox. Bennent (who would go on to play Sigmund Freud in his last film role at the age of 84ii) seems to relish hamming it up as the somewhat sinister Heinrich, a swinging bisexual Lothario in a smoking jacket, a character apparently modeled on everything the director despised.

Unfortunately, Neil (who the same year had played Damien Thorn in Omen III: The Final Conflict) wanders through the film as if shell-shocked by the script, which seems to call for extended bouts of existential navel-gazing, speculations on the nature of God and presumably the voices Żuławski was hearing in his head.

Possession quickly degenerates into a hysterical triangle in which Mark, abandoned with his young son and horrified by the “vulgarity” of it all, constructs a blood drenched fever dream full of heavy-handed Freudian symbolism. Cue the electric carving knife. There is a lot of shouting and none of it makes a whole lot of sense.

In a scenery-chewing orgy of narcissism which has the cast do everything but burst into song, Neil plays large parts of the film as if stunned by where he seems to have found himself, although the image of him rocking back and forth with a manic grin might stand as a commentary on the film as a whole. Mark’s responses are all uncomfortably sexualized, as are Heinrich’s and Anna’s, and there is a queasy hint of kinder porn as the camera gazes a little too lovingly at Mark and his son, Bobiii.

The streets of Berlin, on the merciful occasions the audience escapes the claustrophobic, pseudo-Bergmannesque interiors of Possession, are grey and empty. Every window has a view of a wall. The emptiness of the city is the only counterpoint to the hysterical melodrama taking place within.

In its best moments, the film yields striking images, like Heinrich’s motorcycle abandoned on the street while an apartment burns next to the Wall - but the sense of time and place is curiously unspecific and dreamlike. The camera prowls in ever tighter arcs around its unhinged protagonists but the characters remain largely indifferent to their location, the deserted city functioning only as a backdrop to their collective psychosis.

Reduced to the obvious, the Wall runs through Possession like a metaphor for the boundary between the conscious and subconscious mind. DDR soldiers are seen observing through binoculars but there is no convincing social or political context for the narrative. Michael (an American) and Anna, a sadistic French ballet teacher, act out their spiraling sexual angst entirely indifferent to détente, in a deserted city.

Political skullduggery, while hinted at, is never developed. When Michael hires a local private detective to track down his errant wife, he even appears to have an English accent. Later a wordless encounter on the U-Bahn with a drunk who steals a banana from her will apparently catapult Anna into frenzied alienation.

Genre conventions demand that blood must be spilt again and spilt again, and Charles-Henri Assola, Daniel Braunschweig and Carlo Rambaldi readily obliged with a slew of horrific maimings as well as an extremely disturbing monster that seems to have crawled straight out of the director’s id.

Rambaldi, who had worked on Argento’s Profondo Rosso, Guillermin’s 1976 version of King Kong and Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, would go on to become one of the legends of the special FX business, creating E.T for Spielberg and collaborating with David Lynch on Dune. No stranger to controversy himself, Rambaldi had saved the Italian director Lucio Fulci from an animal cruelty prosecution by demonstrating his work for the director in a courtroom. His work on Possession is certainly not for the faint of heart.

The film received an understandably mixed reaction, with Adjani winning awards for Best Actress at Cannes for her performances in Possession and Quartet. iv The film would also win Żuławski a special mention at Fantasporto and a critic’s award at São Paulo. It was not however a great success at the box office, selling a modest 541,120 tickets in France and (unsurprisingly) receiving an “R” rating in the States, despite being heavily re-cut. Żuławski would attempt to pitch it to Charles Bluhdorn at Paramount as, “a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.v

Possession Poster B 

Possession ’s theatrical run was cut short in the U.K and the film would subsequently be banned as one of the notorious Video Nasties, placing it in the illustrious company of Abel Ferrarra’s Driller Killer, Dario Argento’s Tenebrae and Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast. The 72 films on this list (10 of which are banned to this day in the U.K) are a veritable who’s who of Italian Gialo directors and cinema mavericks. Whilst in thrall to visceral cinema, many loved nothing better than to mix a little art into their exploitation. vi

Tapes would be circulated on a samizdat basis in the U.K, under the counter at the local video shops, battered VHS fourth generation copies, traded between ardent horror fans. The DPP’s list of forbidden titles became as influential among hardcore horror freaks as the Nurse List was to fans of extreme music.

When the moral panic began to subside, Possession gained an uncut DVD release in 1999 and won a number of fans including Michael Brooke who compares it to Polanksi’s Repulsion and writes of it, “Those prepared to make the leap of faith demanded by Zulawski’s ultra-confrontational, deliriously overwrought, symbol-crammed approach will find the experience, like that of Ken Russell’s equally maligned The Devils, very hard to forget” vii.

Indeed for my money Possession is undoubtedly a trash masterpiece of cinematic malefaction. Utterly deranged but totally compelling. It is hard not conclude that both its gothic excesses (and even the city in which they notionally take place) exist purely inside Żuławski’s fevered imagination. Like a car crash, it is impossible to tear your eyes away.

Further reading

Inside The Madhouse Of Andrzej Zulawski

i Possession . Variety 1983

ii Princesse Marie (dir. Benoît Jacquot. Catherine Deneuve) TV 2004

iii The Film Walrus writes, “We realize that Bob’s trauma at the hands of these parents (who conduct themselves far outside the limits of social norms or mental sanity) is probably worse than witnessing the primal scene.”

iv Adjani also won the year's César Award for Best Actress for her performance in Possession, however “one critic reported that the Cannes audience was ''traumatized'' by it.” Possession, blood and horror with Isabelle Adjani. Vincent Canby NYT 1983

v Andrzej Zulawski's Possession , Michael Brooke. Sight & Sound

vi Many of whom also just lived for the cheap thrills of Grind house excess or the dubious edge play of “ Il Sadiconazista”.

vii ibid.

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com