(written as a review for MovieMail in 2007 and also used as part of a MovieMail podcast in 2008)
In a country retreat, Michal witnesses the brutal slaughter of his wife Helena and child Lukasz at the hands of armed horsemen, though his wife seems to expect her death and even dresses for the occasion. After laying their bodies out with his father, who intones a Black Mass, (‘Oh God, who does not lead us … oh God, who allows the fragile to be killed and who elevates blind hatred … oh God, who allows cruelty to be propagated and people to torment each other … oh God, who elevates the most evil ones and puts the whip in their hands … oh merciless God, have no mercy upon us.’), he escapes to the city, takes refuge for his life in an apartment, and there aids a birth by a woman, Marta, who seems to be an incarnation of his wife. He spends the remainder of the film unwittingly chasing after his own death, surrounded by symbols that he only dimly grasps. And if this sounds portentous, it is offset by a memorably lurid stylisation more asociated with Hammer horror, by the punctuation of occasional fuzz guitar in the soundtrack and some thrilling, involving, hand-held camerawork around and through the back streets, alleyways and institutes of Krakow.
This freedom of mobility in the camerawork (by Witold Sobocinski) gives the film a visceral, emotional impact well suited to the strange reality of the film’s subject. Zulawski talks of feeling liberated from any academic tradition of cinema when making the film, and away from the dead hand of party interference, he, along with his cast and crew, also felt freed from producing anything ponderous or mannered – though given the story, based on a script by Zulawski’s father about his experiences in wartime Nazi-occupied Poland, this would have been unlikely anyway.
It takes as its central situation, and metaphor, that of lice-feeding. (Says Zulawski of this, ‘The second world war seen through a microscope about lice sucking blood from very naive young people seems to me, up to today, as interesting at least as the battle of Berlin, planes, tanks…’) Curiously, for this is certainly the strangely unsettling part of the film, it was a situation based on fact. During the war, Polish intellectuals found shelter of a kind with the Rudolf Weigl Institute, which manufactured typhus vaccine for the German armed forces. As is depicted in the film, lice cages were attached to people’s legs to fed on their blood. They were then injected with typhus germs which bred in the lice’s intestines, and these intestines were then processed to obtain the vaccine. Those people working at the Institute and infected with typhoid were shunned as untouchables by the Germans and provided with papers that were good against deportation, arrest and hunger. As an apparition of Marta explains to Michal while he is feeding, ‘lice are important as they keep you alive’. As lice-feeding only occupied an hour or so of the day (though the itching lasted much longer), it thus became a convenient core of resistance activities, with which, in the film, Michal becomes involved.
These experiences of a bureacracy dedicated to the nurture and use of lice are expertly and consistently realised on screen, from the shots of the equipment used and the microscopically detailed close-ups of procedures with the lice, to the feeders’ feverish and reddened eye-rims standing out against the background of dingy mustard-yellow walls in the Institute. Despite their being based in fact, it is the matter-of-fact acceptance from all the participants of the oddness of the situation that makes these scenes seem so surreal.
Of course, the skein of the film’s story is also at times twisted and tightened into something far more maniacal. At one point in the film, a lice-feeder says that he will feed well today because he is feverish; ‘Feverish blood has bubbles and it fizzes like champagne,’ he says. The film itself is somewhat like that; its images get under your skin like the fever from a biting louse, and begin to work on your imagination. It’s not a film you can forget.
I said earlier that colour held as much of a clue to the film as words. Against the film’s consistently blue-grey pallor – the blue of oily smoke from cars, of ash and wet pavements, railings and rain and reinforced glass, there is the purity of Lukasz's cornflower blue outfit, an unsullied purity of colour that amounts to something like moral justification and encouragement.
The lice that keep Michal alive, for a while anyway, in the film, are representative of the lice that kept Zulawski’s father alive during the war. When Zulawski says, ‘the blood of contaminated lice flows in my veins,’ he is only partly joking.