Zulawski's first full-length feature, The Third Part of the Night, is a bit of a head-scratcher. An energetic, spell-binding head-scratcher but a head-scratcher all the same. I have to admit to being lost through large portions of it. Not just the third part of The Third Part. Much of the first and second act as well.
The film starts off on solid narrative footing. It's occupied Poland, WWII, and some nasty Germans storm a man's country house, kill his wife (above), her mother, his child. The man, Michal, flees to the city to join the resistance. After fleeing more Germans during his first clandestine meeting there (a fantastic chase scene, btw), another man is accidentally killed in his stead. Grief-stricken two times over, Michal goes to the dead man's wife to make amends only to find that she looks shockingly like his own dead wife. More than that, she's about to give birth. He helps her deliver (in one of the most disturbing birthing scenes I've ever seen), then sticks around out of guilt/fascination to become the replacement husband/dad. His new family needs a breadwinner, it seems, so he needs to go feed the lice.
Yes, you read that correctly: "feed the lice." At first, I thought I was reading it incorrectly, too. I just assumed the YouTube copy I was watching had lazy subtitles. "Feed the lice"? A Polish euphemism of some sort? Or just a shoddy Polish-to-English translation? No, as it turns out, Michal really does get a job feeding the lice, by which I mean feeding himself to boxed specimens of typhoid-infested lice at an German Army medical center where they create vaccines.
The lice angle turns out to be most interesting element of The Third Part, and the feeding scenes really stick in your mind. This is also where the film started to lose me a bit, Zulawski piling on his customary doppelganger imagery a bit too heavily. It might have worked better if I hadn't already seen most of his films last year, many of them devolving into doppelganger shenanigans by the end, even his masterwork Possession. The man obviously loves the shock reveal of a person staring at himself.
Copies of copies of copies aside, The Third Part of the Night is an intriguing film. For a first film, it's got much more going on inside its fevered/duplicated head than most debuts. And it's a good primer for the later and more excessive Zulawski obsessions to come.