That Most Important Thing: Discovering Żuławski

Written by Alan Garcia

Andrzej Żuławski made films so intense and uncompromising that it’s almost not surprising they’re obscure and generally hard to come by. The films reveal a director possessed by a strange and singular cinematic vision. Impressively, he seemed to have maintained this vision his whole career, despite sometimes ludicrous outside pressures to the contrary.

Auteur-like, all of Żuławski’s stuff seems of a piece, and follows its own strange logic. His movies take place in a restless, heightened reality. Characters don’t speak, they bellow. His casts seem to be bursting with a primal, animalistic energy. There are mad theatrics, brash scene choreography — even pratfalls (which don’t seem to be played for laughs). There’s frenetic pacing and a frantic, roving camera. Seemingly unceasing rapid-fire dialogue. Heavy, punishing soundtracks. Violence that can break out at any moment. Wildly divergent sub-plots happening in the chaotic background: conspiracies, gangsters, intrigues, assassinations, terrorist attacks.

Moving through the filmography (which spanned from the 1970s to the 2010s), there’s also the sense that these movies retreat more and more into their own private filmic universe. They become increasingly idiosyncratic and meta. They begin unusually folding in on themselves. They pile on more and more layers, referencing previous ones in oblique ways, becoming explicit commentaries on reality, filmmaking, and art — among other things.

Żuławski’s films can also be difficult, busy, frustrating, and even baffling — they take no prisoners. His seemingly career-long commitment to this unique and unusual style demands your attention. In particular, here is a run of movies he made during the 1970s and early ‘80s that stands as a kind of peak.

Diabeł / The Devil (Poland, 1972)


Like many Żuławski movies, Diabeł begins mid-catastrophe, dropping you squarely in the middle of pandemonium. In this case: a war-torn, nightmarish Polish wilderness. With the movie refusing to let us get our bearings, we follow the inexorable journey of Jakub the fool through a series of horrendous episodes. He is spurred on by none other than The Devil incarnate, who appears to tempt him periodically, leading him on to ever more disastrous doings.

This early work, made in Poland, unleashes Żuławski’s camera, which is forever moving, careening, circling. His frenzied style seems fully formed. Its low-budget creation of a muddy, volatile hellscape is extraordinary, with a truly unhinged score to match. Its vicious ending is still shocking to this day, and likely helped the film get banned in Poland almost 50 years prior.

L’Important c’est d’aimer / That Most Important Thing: Love (France, 1975)


Heading to France after the banning of Diabeł, L’Important c’est d’aimer was Żuławski’s next effort. The movie follows a photographer, in love with a B-list actress, who anonymously funds a staging of Richard III, and secretly gets her cast in the production.

Despite the (maybe intentional) Hallmark-esque title (a later Żuławski movie, Cosmos, even spares a moment to poke fun at it), this movie is as unrelenting as any of the director’s other work, stuffed as it is with gangster orgies, blood, and an unleashed Klaus Kinski. However, it’s maybe (a little) more subtle about it.

A highlight of the movie is Kinski’s victorious barroom brawl against multiple opponents, shot in one dazzling take. Note how this brawl is sparked after Kinski’s character hears how a theatre critic has denounced the new play he appears in — denounced for reasons which sound eerily like what Żuławski movies might be criticised for, i.e. “expressionistic”, “chaos”, etc. The brawl seems like cinematic revenge — a nice touch.

Na srebrnym globie / On the Silver Globe (Poland, 1988)


L’Important c’est d’aimer had won a bunch of awards and courted some accolades — mainly in France. So, seemingly welcome to make movies in Poland again, Żuławski began shooting the wildly ambitious sci-fi epic Na srebrnym globie in the mid-1970s — which is the kind of movie you get to make when you’re suddenly toast of the town. Think Apocalypse Now, Sorcerer, Heaven’s Gate (all of which were also shot in the mid- to late-1970s — a happily indulgent time to be making movies). A key difference, though, is that those movies were completed. Production of Na srebrnym globie was shut down late in the process by the Polish government due to its content.

Na srebrnym globie was finally released in 1988 in brutally truncated form (about four-fifths of the movie was shot). However, it’s still a cosmic, sprawling beast, weighing in at nearly three hours (with some narration to act as glue in place of the missing puzzle pieces). Amazingly, mirroring real life, the movie’s story revolves around an old ‘found film’ (like Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project), shot by a crew of astronauts who land on an Earth-like planet.

It’s also particularly obsessed with ideas about truth, power, and oppression — almost as if the movie knew it would be partly annihilated. In this way, its incomplete quality even makes it feel kind of ‘complete’. In any case, there’s at least enough of Na srebrnym globie salvaged to allow you to imagine the rest.

Possession (West Germany/France, 1981)


With a kind of cult status in horror movie circles, Possession is another whirling nightmare, this time set in West Germany. It’s a Żuławski ‘monster movie’ (or is it a ‘marriage movie’?) that scales the utmost heights of hysteria. Without giving too much away, the ‘possession’ its title refers to takes on many forms: marriage, adulterers, the supernatural. Even the Berlin Wall is ominously ever-present in the background. More interesting is how the cast and movie itself seem possessed of a fierce, manic energy, best exemplified by its notorious, mesmerising ‘subway scene’.

La Femme Publique / The Public Woman (France, 1984)


La Femme Publique just so happens to revolve around the feverish filming of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (hinting at the title of Żuławski’s previous movie, and strangely predicting his next one, which was also a Dostoyevsky adaptation). In La Femme Publique, real life and the shooting of the film-within-the-film begin to blur for its lead actress (bringing to mind Perfect Blue and Inland Empire, which tread similar territory). It all gets even more slippery from there, with La Femme Publique itself morphing into a loose, bizarre adaptation of The Possessed before you even know what’s happening.

La Femme Publique caps a particularly impressive, tumultuous run of filmmaking. However, there are more works to unearth, much like the preserved shaman dug up after many centuries in Żuławski’s final Polish film, Szamanka (1996). The exhuming of the shaman probably wasn’t meant as a metaphor for discovering Żuławski’s filmic wizardry well after the fact – but as far as analogies go, I sure as shit can’t think of a better one than that.