Friday, February 11, 2011


One of the most difficult films to break down into irreducible parts, Diabel is a phantasmagorical concoction of period decadence, nightmarish exaggeration, apocalyptic collapse, divine disinterest, patriarchal pestilence, and other assorted sordid elements all captured within a disorienting onslaught of slicing camera sweeps and colliding time slices. Its protagonist is simultaneously hero and anti-hero, its villain is diabolical and yet instrumental in the hero’s dubious successes, and the only characters left standing are the mostly ineffectual doubly-orphaned nun and a brothel’s intellectually ineffectual orphaned sex slave. Its subtext is an apparent mix of reprehensible current events, Dostoevsky, and communist disrepair. Its score is composed of electric guitars shredding through a soundscape over the tops of belching brass horns and echoing percussion, all of which is at times drowned by the screeches of those sad beings trapped in the film. I say all this not to summarize, but to emphasize how far from a summary I still am which will no doubt be emphasized by each reader’s disagreement with my chosen emphases. To pick apart the important details omitted would be an immense task, and it all points to the irreducible complexity which any good creationist would use to claim that Andrzej Zulawski is divine – and I a woefully inadequate mortal. With this acknowledgement of my inadequacies I feel that I can begin to do this film a grave injustice with a clear conscience.

“Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness, or because it is really like that?”
 “You ask me difficult questions. You see, the world isn’t horrible. The world is beautiful. You see, it’s full of flowers, gardens, fruits, women... I’m not able to describe it to you. I have to dance it out.”

It would be silly of me to break down the plot of the film, a plot developed inside an ever shifting maelstrom and propelled by a deceptive apparition, both because of the fitting unreliability of everything contained in the film and also because I see little unique to the plot that is not explored more interestingly through other cinematic elements. Who cares about a plot in a ballet? A plot requires no dancing, and there is little beauty in a plot synopsis. And there are certainly no complaints in a ballet about a lack of dialogue, about the characters dancing too much. As such, you will hear no complaints from me about the film containing too much madness, about too much screaming, about too much acting. Let’s not pretend that my ballet comparison is merely a throwaway comparison, either – I love the ballet! And in the ballet there is a wide range of expression, ranging from the classically graceful stuff that is the only version you will find in Hollywood to the fantastically bizarre and primal, a true exploration of the limits of the art of movement. It is this style of dance to which Zulawski can be compared, although his dance extends to the emotions, to the voice, to speech, to characterization, to editing, to cinematography. When Peter Greenaway talks about the tyranny of the actor, of the text, and of the camera – he would find one of the greatest revolutionaries in Andrzej Zulawski. The image, the creation of the actor, and the impression on the audience revolts against the tyranny of the synopsis, against the tyranny of ‘realism’, against the tyranny of interpretation, against the tyranny of understatement. It is true that the words of a man who rarely speaks carry more weight than the words of those whose mouths never cease flapping, but the corollary for a loud cinema is that its silences will speak loudest. The quietest moments in the film happen to coincide with the purest expressions of emotion. Compare this to the melodrama, where the music and the emotions run loudest when they are supposed to be at their purest – I know which beat I dance to. The film does not simply undulate drastically between overbearing freneticism and subdued tenderness, however. For me, the film’s range is like that of a great singer, hitting the low notes at times and the high notes at others but most often working in the middle tones, all the while playing off the contrasts between the whole range. For a poor singer their best note is barely differentiable from their worst, and the nuances of their intonation are lost in the shuffle. Diabel is a work wherein a great many elements express a broad range, and once accustomed to the upper and lower limits I find the expressive possibilities between the poles endless. Of course, you may feel that all of this broadening results in a flattening, in a reduction of the ambivalence and nuance that creates the muddle we know as human communication – and I would agree! And celebrate it! And disagree somewhat, but nevermind that quibble. Reality can be like a blinding white light, and art so often serves as the prism through which the light can be split into its various wavelengths and approached without being overwhelmed, but it is often limited to simple psychological and ideological refraction with the stylistic and emotional elements anchored to realism. That Zulawski is one of the few who engages in stylistic and emotional refraction finds him labeled an oddity, a ‘nasty’, a hysteric, exhausting – but no matter; I say it makes him a great choreographer of cinema.

“No! You can’t think only of yourself! Egoist! Look, she is happy. If you intervene you’ll complicate a lot of things.”

Zulawski works in a much less immediately abstract form than ballet, and people may be reticent to treat Diabel as impressionistic exploration of artistic limits and instead inclined to judge it by the standards of a typical realistic film – and why not? If the film didn’t measure up to a single standard by which you would measure a typical film I would not care an ounce, because I would still find an endless supply of content to adore, but being a deity means that there are no places where Zulawski’s presence is not felt. I don’t care what I said before about the plot being inscrutable or the characters unrealistic – they are and they are not, throw your reason to the dogs, I don’t want it. The plot is buried underneath disorienting stylistic devices, but it’s there if you really want it, and the characters do react to emotional stimuli. I think the plot most closely resembles A Christmas Carol, with a few caveats. Where Scrooge is ushered around a selection of intangible visions and offered the opportunity to reflect, Jakub is forced to react to a sequence of tangible and often dangerous events, but he is puppeted about all the same. Scrooge is supposedly cursed by his inability to change the events he sees, but the possibility constantly dangles in front of Jakub and he is never able to resist the temptation, even when he would be better served by a bit of reflection. While Scrooge is offered the chance to alter the vision of the future he is presented when he returns to the present, Jakub is offered no such luxury, as the events he is shown are his present and the opportunity to change them has long since passed. Jakub’s inability to reflect serves the purposes of his devilish guide perfectly, as his disorientation and overwhelming sense of hopelessness and abandonment is the best fuel to get him to name his co-conspirators. At root, that is the plot, a simple matter of psychological manipulation achieved through the introduction of certain elements meant to provoke Jakub into breaking his silence and betraying his co-conspirators, although its presentation differs from the austere distance provided by ghosts from the realm of the intangible in A Christmas Carol. The manipulator in Diabel is a tangible being, and the film’s style gives the viewer an experience that matches Jakub’s own disorientation, aided not only by the highly subjective cinematography and heightened performances of the film but also in its severe ellipses signaled either by a dramatic shift in location or a dramatic shift in temperature, and yet the viewer never interferes in the events, thus having room for reflection. In this way the audience experiences the film as if they were Scrooge, with the sense of being transported to events but without the ability to tangibly interfere, and the slight distinction being that the living haunt the living. This description may make it sound like 'every film ever made' - and that's either invalid due to the comparisons made or completely valid, because A Christmas Carol is essentially just a deconstruction of dramaturgy, but not all films are truly haunted from within. Whatever the case, as expected in a black comedy, the plot functions less as a prominent point of focus and more as a method of attuning the viewer’s focus on things in the indeterminate range between comedy and tragedy.

“When a woodcutter comes to the forest, what must he do to get through it?”

The most prominent element which circles the plot but is in fact entirely incidental to it is the role of violence. Most prominently, the devilish manipulator wants Jakub to participate in a ‘cleansing’, an idea with strong echoes of the quest undertaken by Juraj Herz’s protagonist in The Cremator. Unlike that film, though, Jakub finds no happy ending. Jakub is cleansed in the same way he cleanses his former best friend soon after cleansing the horse that carries him. This cleansing element is the element which most closely parallels the events which supposedly inspired the film (the government tricked a group of students into protesting against censorship and then punished them for protesting), but the film’s events barely resemble the actual events and involve a great deal more ambivalence. Jakub is betrayed both by his fellow revolutionaries and by the government’s counter-revolutionary forces, and the task he is manipulated into performing is far less morally justifiable than anti-censorship protests. Every element in the film which corresponds with the good of the real world is muddied and every element in the film which corresponds with the evils of the real world is rendered impotent. Everything finds its equal and its opposite, both inside and outside. Best friends and enemies, at the same time, sharing a woman and a death. A pair of epileptics fighting opposing causes yet unable to untangle from each other. Think of the nun whose ineffectual passivity seems to be a shining beacon of sanity, and yet only when she frees herself from her shroud is she able to take action to defend herself and expose the devilish manipulator’s true nature. What is one moment an apparent strength is at another moment a remnant of past weakness. There is a film filled with loyalty and disloyalty and aggressiveness and manipulation and it ends on a note of self-preservation and defensiveness. Nothing is simple, nothing is clear, isn’t it wonderful? Let’s return to the horse: Zulawski is great at including these initially bewildering elements which reveal themselves on reflection. Jakub kills the horse he is riding on and is tossed violently off into the snow – it could be an outcropping of his increasing bloodthirst (which in itself makes him a target for a moral cleansing) or a metaphor with a number of potential interpretations and referents, most especially the scene where he is dragged behind a horse from the house he has just fled. Whatever the case, it is a jarring dismount, a further muddying of Jakub’s morality, and perhaps a direct parallel to the film’s next cleansing by knife, also its final one. I’ll leave the reflection on the allegorical connections to you, if you want to make them, but the jarring metaphor is a common technique for Zulawski and the film ends at the moment when the nun’s bloody rags hit the ground, leaving only a pure white gown in an already clearly symbolic finale involving another animal killed by a razor, so there are connections to be drawn. Zulawski’s films are dense, layered, filled with dualism, and yield multitudes on reflection, and reflection is always demanded.

“My dear fellow, you can’t do that. You have to be strong. You have to survive the worst. It was all a joke. Without a sense of humor you won’t achieve anything.”

Diabel ends on a note of farce, but one need not see the end to notice its exaggerations, its incongruities, its caustic disdain. I’ve already mentioned how it is a swarm of oppositions, so how could it not match its drama and tragedy with comedy and absurdity? In fact, its final scene is the first scene free of the all consuming clash of opposites, and is a bit like the first time the sun peeks through the clouds. The sun’s rays are never absent, merely diffused. If black comedy is defined by its simultaneous mix of deliriously abandoned normalcy and irrepressible human tragedy then it’s hard to imagine a better mix. There are bouts of hypersexual lust, not limited to a single gender or multiple bloodlines or those outside the clergy. The contrast of the three works well, but the incestuous case certainly stands out. All incest involving mothers inevitably comes back to Oedipus, and the contrast bears out the distinction between the two. While Oediups and his mother are both the victims of dramatic irony, Jakub is well aware of his relation and is simply testing her limits. Instead of killing herself out of shame she simply attends an orgy with her son, and while the contrast seems comical it does not provide the audience with any release of tension. It is a taboo treated irreverently without losing its unsettling edge, delivered with an ambivalence that is both critical and modest, because there are only wrong answers. There are numerous episodes of violence, none very enjoyable and all in some manner both righteous and ironic. The duel, always the most futile and nonsensical arrangement to settle scores, takes place in the film in front of the dead body of the duelers’ mutual love, and when both are shot and one dies there is nothing gained but a reinforcement of futility. Finally, when speaking of comic incongruities it is impossible to avoid the film’s acting style. In crafting incongruous performances, whether understated as in the static desperation of Roy Andersson’s films or overstated as here makes no difference to me, as both are stylistically fitting elements of their respective crumbling universes. The comedy is rarely direct, rarely pure, but such crumbling universes are always havens for the exceedingly ambivalent, and those within who are purely villainous or purely heroic come out as purely comic and little else. When everything is collapsing there are no great victories, and every movement tends to go too far. It is no surprise that both directors use the innocent and the virginal in their films, and less surprising still that they do not survive unscathed. Diabel is overwhelming, it is much too much, it is everything all at once, and it is a great pleasure to survive the worst – because it ends in comedy and dance.


  1. "That Zulawski is one of the few who engages in stylistic and emotional refraction finds him labeled an oddity, a ‘nasty’, a hysteric, exhausting – but no matter; I say it makes him a great choreographer of cinema."

    Most interesting! The element of farce you speak of recalls Boroczyk, yet the stylists are consistent with much of the Czech New Wave. The film discussed here is (unforunately) one I haven't yet seen, though I am most familiar with the director, having seen THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT, POSSESSION and THE PUBLIC WOMAN. I will move now to try and get hold of this DVD if it available. (BTW I love Herz's satiric THE CREMATOR, originally seeing it on the Hungarian DVD, and later acquiring the Second Run) and this subject here of course brings to mind Ken's Russell's masterpiece as well as Dreyer's DAY OF WRATH and Vlacil's VALLEY OF THE BEES. Superlative review in every sense.

  2. There is but a single scene of farce in the film, so I don't want to give off a false impression. It's dreary and somewhat frightening but bizarre and disorienting and nightmarish throughout, with a brief reprieve at the end. It's similar to Possession in a lot of ways, although I find Diabel much richer. I'm guessing the closest referent outside of Zulawski's own films is Wajda's 'The Ashes', because Zulawski worked on that film under Wajda, but I haven't seen it. Same time period, though. Another might be Wojciech Has, whose Hourglass Sanatorium was made at a similar point in time and has a similar but far lighter atmosphere (which is not to say it is light, but the film is incredible). This film is available on relatively poor quality DVD (although I've seen much worse, unfortunately) and will be released in the next couple of years, hopefully, by Mondo Vision. It's in their 'upcoming films' section, anyway. It's one of my very favorites. I need not warn you about his style, so I can skip to the good part: I hope you enjoy it, whenever that may be!

  3. I am a very big fan of Has' HOURGLASS SANITORIUM! I do hope Mondo Vision comes through!