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ANDRZEJ ŻUŁAWSKI’S By Josh

POSSESSION Campbell

The Polish auteur’s 1980’s arthouse horror flick has remained an


underground oddity for decades. But by placing the film in context and
examining its various elements, some intriguing interpretations can be
drawn.
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Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) is a puzzling film. At once an art house flick about

a failing marriage, while also being a body horror picture about a woman sleeping with a

tentacled monster. It exists in several worlds simultaneously. But this very dichotomy and

multiplicity produce a wealth of content and interpretations to explore. In this essay, we will

break these various components down and examine them one by one. First, we will review

Żuławski as a filmmaker, looking at his technique, origins, and filmography before placing

Possession within this context. Then we will review the film’s content. The plot, acting,

camerawork, and setting. Diving further still, we will trace the different elements of horror that

the film implements. Finally, we will review some themes and interpretations that can be

extrapolated from all the preceding elements. Through this, we aim to see where the film came

from, what it does, and discover what some implications of that process are.

PART I: Żuławski the Filmmaker

Andrzej Żuławski (pronounced Andrei Zu-WAAV-Ski) was born in Poland during the

Nazi occupation of WWII. His early life was plagued by a series of bizarre occurrences and

exposure to atrocities. All of which would shape his world view and the brutality of his later

films. He went to a French film school and then proceeded to work as an assistant to Polish

master, Andrzej Wajda, in the 1960’s. (Atkinson) However, from that point onward Żuławski

began to drift more towards the fringes of cinema. His first feature film, The Third Part of the

Night (1971), was a wartime horror story where a man’s family is slaughtered by Nazis. He

escapes and joins the resistance but eventually becomes a humiliated collaborationist in vaccine

development trials. The film was incredibly violent in its depictions of war, while also
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introducing two themes that would carry on throughout Żuławski’s later work: surrealism and

autobiography. Michael Atkinson refers to the film’s abstracted context of doppelgängers and

raving lunacy as “baldly Kafkaesque”. (Atkinson) And although it was told through a

collidoscope of moody imagery, the film has many elements from the director’s life. Żuławski’s

father took part in the Institute For the Study Of Typhus And Virology’s vaccine trials at Jan

Kazimierz University in the 40s. (Vishnevetsky) In exchange for political shelter from the

Nazi’s, he became a “feeder” for typhus infected lice colonies. Through his inclusion of this

bizarre reality, the director made his first attempt at viewing his own life through a surrealist

lens. All these elements demonstrate the tortured and personal cinema of Żuławski, and they also

played a part in the repression that his films often received.

The Third Part of the Night’s violent content angered Polish government authorities and

was given a limited release. His next, even more violently political film, The Devil (1972), was

completely rejected and shelved for 16 years, and the director was ejected from the country. This

brought him back to France, where he would make most of his later films, and allowed him to be

in contact with Hollywood, which eventually spawned Possession, his only English language

film. As an expatriate, and even during his Polish residency, Żuławski remained a sort of

outsider. His films shared the surreal black humor of fellow Poles, Roman Polanski and Andrzej

Wajda, but he always pushed things further than his contemporaries. On this note, Michael

Atkinson writes, “far from being subject to national sensibility, Żuławski is a true hermeticist:

perhaps no other filmmaker who uses live actors has gone further in creating his own personal

Outland: psychologically anarchic and starving for freedom.” (Atkinson) This lust for freedom

and devotion to personal expression provides his films with a certain power. Rather than being

the product of storyboards, shot lists, and careful preparation, they were often cobbled together
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from what he was able to shoot in the time and budget available. They would be pieced into

somewhat coherent products in the editing room, often in new and unexpected way. This results

in an odd spontaneity and freedom. It seems they could diverge in any number of directions

while somehow remaining inherently whole. The AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky describes the

style as, “wildly undisciplined and inspired. His films seem lost in their own making, with scenes

or sometimes even individual shots directed without apparent consideration for how they’re

supposed to fit in the whole; a Żuławski movie’s contradictory, usually enigmatic interpretations

of a central theme are held together by force of will”. (Vishnevetsky) In a further interpretation,

Michal Oleszcyzk compares his style to a midpoint between Ingmar Bergman and Brian

DePalma. There are strings of grand sequences, but “Żuławski remains deeply engaged with the

secrets of the human soul, which he perceives as being forever torn apart by violent

contradictions.” (Oleszcyzk) Which brings us to Possession, the director’s fifth feature, but only

the third to see an official release at the time.

Part II: Approaching Possession

Many of Żuławski’s later films feature sex, violence, violent sex, and sexual violence.

Michael Atkinson writes, “In the decades since [Possession,] his scenarios [began] favoring

romantic love (and its failures) over the earlier films’ fantastical desperation.” (Atkinson) But

within Possession, we see the surreal dreamscapes of titles like Third of the Night, The Devil,

and On the Silver Globe (filmed in the 70s, released in 1988) mixed in with the director’s

newfound domestic focus. It represents a midpoint in his career, and an important milestone for

his later artistic obsessions. There is a precise reason for this, several months prior to writing the
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first draft, Żuławski went through an incredibly messy divorce with actress and muse,

Malgorzata Braunek. In the film, and most of the films he would make for the rest of his career,

he was exorcising his feelings felt in the event, and indicting the two parties involved. Oleszczyk

writes, “Żuławski and his co-screenwriter Frederic Tuten put together a viscerally acute portrayal

of male jealousy and rage, [one which] is ultimately about the perils of personal freedom taken to

its extreme.” (Oleszczyk) Thus, Possession is a horror film that focuses on more domestic and

psychological issues, rather than the typical sights and thrills of the corporeal world. In this

aspect the film fits securely into the realm of “art horror”.

Arthouse horror films tend to focus on more emotional themes, with the horrific elements

being enhancements or physical representations of inner turmoil. Some genre examples include

Eyes Without a Face (1960), Don’t Look Now (1973), Eraserhead (1977), and Hereditary

(2018). With this unique focus, these films tend to blend genre boundaries more than typical

horror. On this note, regarding Possession, Oleszczyk also writes, “the film dares its viewer to

enter a trance-like state, in which genres blur and mate to yield a new level of cinematic

expression.” (Oleszczyk) The viewer should be as ready for a lengthy soliloquy on life and

death, as they are for a gelatinous monster to be lying in a pool of its own bile. Such a

dichotomous demand has had an interesting effect on audiences. Despite the arthouse bent, the

movie was grouped in with the video nasty films of Britain in the 1980s. Placed alongside films

like Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Fulci’s Zombie (1979), and The Toxic Avenger (1984). In this

controversial purgatory, the film deterred high minded arthouse patrons, and baffled low brow

gore hounds simultaneously. Despite this, Possession is a film of incredible depth, subtlety, and

visceral impact. As we begin our discussion of the film, we will first go through the essential plot

points and scenes, in order to reference them regarding other elements later.
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PART III: The Film

In brief, Possession is about a failing marriage where the wife has an affair. She

miscarries a monster, then starts sleeping with that monster, which eventually turns into the man

she wants her husband to be. But the way this story unfolds is far more meandering and murkier

than a simple synopsis would indicate. We begin with Mark (Sam Neill) returning from a

business trip to meet his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani). They have a cold reception and then we

learn that they are no longer in love with each, but neither one can really say why. We learn that

Anna has been having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), which sends the once amicable

disagreement into a flurry of aggression. As their relationship sours, Mark meets Helen (also

played by Adjani) who is his son Bob’s schoolteacher. At the same time, he begins having a PI

follow Anna. When the detective goes to an apartment she has been staying at, he finds a

terrifying monster covered in blood and pile. Anna kills him to keep the secret. When another

detective follows up at Anna’s, he too is killed as we get another view of the squid-like creature

that Anna has been sleeping with. Back at their home, Anna tells Mark how she came to this

current state, describing a miscarriage she had in the subway, which we see in flashback. After

this Mark decides to try and keep her by following along with the madness. He sends Heinrich to

her apartment where he too sees the creature and the dead men. Hysterical after this discovery,

Mark decides to kill him and stage the death to protect Anna. He then blows up the apartment.

From here the narrative begins spiraling out of control as Mark is contacted by old employers,

finds Anna sleeping with the creature, and gets in a shootout with men trying to take the creature

from Anna. Everything comes to a head on a staircase where Anna introduces a wounded Mark
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to his doppelgänger (also Sam Neill). The couple is shot by Mark’s employers and the double

escapes to the apartment of Helen, where Bob is staying. The child begs her not to open the door

for him, and then drowns himself in a bathtub. We are left with a shot of Helen staring into the

camera as a foggy Mark double waits at the door and air raid sirens blare on the soundtrack. An

apocalypse seems to be taking place as the credits role. Now, with a basic outline of the major

plot points, we move onto the characters and component that make up this narrative.

Part IV: The Characters

The most notable element of Possession is the acting. Its flamboyant, verbose,

pretentious, and utterly captivating. The three leads are constantly screaming and thrashing about

their large empty apartments and the vacant streets of Berlin. The bizarre nature of this style is

informed by many aspects of the Polish theater of the 1970s. David Thompson comments on this

in his Sight & Sound article from 1998, “...those fortunate enough to have seen [Wajda’s]

productions with the Cracow Starry Theater, will know of the peculiar exuberance and abandon

of the Polish stage tradition. But Żuławski has taken this a step further, in particular, applying the

theories of Grotowski to free up his actors and provoke them to a full throated, physically

uninhibited manner of performance.” (Thompson) The connection to Grotowski is particularly

enlightening when viewing the film. Jerzy Grotowski was an Avant Garde Polish theater

practitioner influenced by the likes of Stanislavski and Brecht. He developed a rigorous style of

actor training that emphasized the “physical, spiritual, and ritualistic aspects of theater.”

(TheDramaTeacher.com) Psychical movement and motion were essential aspects, and actors

were to have no ego. Grotowski himself said, “This act cannot exist if the actor is more
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concerned with charm, personal success, [etc.] than with creation as understood in its highest

form.” (Grotowski) The space that actors performed in was also integral to Grotowski’s style. In

his “Poor Theater”, there were few to no props, performances were held in rooms and buildings,

rather than theaters or stages, and the audience would encircle the actors. All of this was done to

promote the actor’s skill and reduce the separation between the audience and actors. These

methods are clearly at play in Possession. The predominantly bare sets, the circling camera, the

movements of the actors through their confined spaces, and the intensity that everyone brings to

their respective scenes.

As Mark, Sam Neill is a cold, business type personality who works for the CIA. He

seems devoid of affection as he tells Anna, “If you left me, I wouldn’t feel anything”. However,

this couldn’t be further from the truth. Immediately after the cafe separation scene, he goes into a

sort of withdraw, writhing around at a cheap hotel, moaning into phones, and checking out of life

for three weeks. Over the rest of the film he goes through every pain imaginable in order to try

and keep her. In Żuławski’s commentary for the 2003 Studio Canal release, he talks about how

Neill approached the role. The actor marked up the script in order to see what stage of madness

Mark needed to be in as they shot sequences out of order. (Żuławski) This focus on madness

demonstrates the plots downward spiral of surreal expression. The director also notes that Mark

is the glue holding the film together. Although Anna and Heinrich often come in and steal their

respective scenes, it is Mark’s struggle that locks us into the narrative, no matter how abstract

and lucid it becomes. But without a doubt the standout performance of the film is Isabelle

Adjani’s portrayal of Anna.

Slant Magazine’s Budd Wilkins notes, “Many directors have taken full advantage of

Adjani’s exotic, ethereal French beauty; only Żuławski saw beyond the exquisite surface to
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something unsettling.” (Wilkins) This unsettling nature is slowly revealed to us over the first

hour of the film. We are initially given a housewife who is forced to wait at home while her

husband is off in a foreign land, performing classified operations that she can never learn about.

She feels controlled, and in a way, she craves this control, which she finds in another, Heinrich.

But eventually she demands more than a man can give, and she turns to something monstrous in

order to create her own idyllic mate. She is the center of nearly every scene she is featured in, but

standouts include the breadknife mutilation, and the legendary subway sequence. With the knife,

she seems to be absorbing every word Mark is spitting at her. His pleading and coddling, his

sense of superiority. She is being reminded of everything she hates about him. To silence him,

she shows that he means absolutely nothing to her at this moment. She can’t feel a thing, even a

mechanical blade slicing into her flesh. It's a scene rich with tension that continues to ratchet up.

The often remarked upon subway shot is the centerpiece of the movie. Michal Oleszczyk notes

that it is, “arguably the bravest female performance ever put on film”. (Oleszczyk) Adjani throws

her body around as if possessed in a single continuous take. She even slams her head into a

concrete wall while violently undulating. It is a scene that is as terrifying as it is breathtaking,

and sticks with the viewer long after the credits roll. It shows an actor that is deeply engrossed in

the content of the film she is making, and completely in tune with the director’s intentions. Just

as Grotowski wished, she has no ego, rolling around in filth and contorting her body in

unflattering configurations. But such a brave portrayal took its toll on Adjani’s psyche, and it is

said that it took her several years to recover from the experience. After seeing the completed film

at a festival, she attempted to take her own life. (Żuławski on Żuławski) And in later years she

described Possession as, “psychological pornography and [that] the camera had no right to go

that far down into the soul”. (Żuławski) But despite her reservations, she won major acclaim for
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her portrayal of madness, winning a French Oscar and best actress at Cannes.

The final human cast member, Heinz Bennent as Heinrich, is the most playful. He is the

soft touch to Mark’s firm grasp. More spiritual and less analytical. He speaks in verse, practices

a Zen lifestyle, and takes drugs while making love to Anna. He is everything that Mark is not. In

his standout introductory scene, he performs a sort of choreographed interpretive dance pugilism.

He makes long elaborate movements and carries Mark around on his shoulders, before ejecting

him from his home. It’s both comical and beautiful in its surreality. Żuławski said that he knew

this man in his divorce, and that he hated everything he represented. He commented that

Heinrich knows how foolish Sam Neill’s character looks next to him. But at the same time,

Heinrich is a helpless fool. All his reading and practicing are put to shame as the world around

him begins to shift and warp. He believes that he has discovered some truth to the universe, but

in Żuławski’s world, a man like Heinrich is just as helpless as anyone else when chance takes

hold.

Finally, there is the monster itself. At one time a smeared black figure on a wall, then a

man like tentacled beast, and finally a doppelgänger of Mark. The way the creature works in the

film is somewhat different from Żuławski’s original intention. The effects were done by the

legendary Carlo Ramboldi [Close Encounters (1977) and ET (1982)]. But when he showed up it

was with an animatronic humanoid. This didn’t work with the original scene where the first

detective is killed. We were supposed to see a deformed fetus in the bathtub, the implication that

it was what Anna miscarried in the subway. Instead, we get the black mass on the wall, which is

film stock and duct tape that Ramboldi put together overnight in order to remain on the tight 3-

week schedule. (Żuławski) This improvisation is important because it alters the monstrous

development over the course of the film and causes more questions to arise. Żuławski had a
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complicated relationship to the change. At once admitting the criticism that something didn’t add

up in the story, but also embracing the vague outcome, appreciating that it made the film and

meaning murkier. (Żuławski) We are left to ponder what happened to Anna in the subway, and

the appearance of the fully formed green eyed Mark at the end. Regardless, the monster is still

the most recognizable aspect of the film. It possesses a foreboding presence and is repulsive in

its alien nature. But oddly enough, the creature never actually perpetrates any outwardly hateful

actions. Instead it is the possessed Anna that does the killing, lying, and cheating (perhaps at the

Lovecraftean beings will). For Anna it represents a rejection of reality, and a rejection of men,

and their wills, that she has been subjected to. In this respect, the creature plays into the abstract

themes of the film, which will be discussed later. Beyond the physical characters on display in

Possession, the visuals provide their own contribution to the narrative.

Part V: The Visuals

The cinematography in Possession simultaneously pulls us into the action, while also

calling attention to its cinematic acrobatics. Regarding the movement, Wilkin’s notes, “Bruno

Nuytten’s inventive camerawork ranges from shaky and handheld in some of the more bruising

confrontation scenes, to fluid, elegant, and kinetic tracking shots.” (Wilkin) At several points

during the runtime, the actors are placed at the center of a circle as they converse while the

camera slowly moves elliptically around them. Their small figures occupying cavernous interiors

or dormant city streets. There is something ominous about these moments, as if we the viewer

are predators, waiting to pounce on these unsuspecting individuals. But they also hold us at a

distance, like a crowd witnessing a street fight. The action on display focusing our attention, but
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also pushing us back to a safe distance. And it emphasizes the Grotowskian idea of a poor

theater, one where the stage can be anywhere and there is no fourth wall locking the viewer out

of the story. Then there is the kinetic power and energy of the handheld sequences, the greatest

of which comes early on during a domestic dispute in the couple’s apartment. We jerk back and

forth between closeups of Mark and Anna as they berate each other with comments and

criticisms. When things turn physical, we are uncomfortably close to the blows they throw at one

another. The camera makes us an active member in their confrontation. The competing

sensations of being too close and somewhat removed are enhanced by the lens choice of the

filmmakers. Oleszczyk remarks that the film, “makes a great, conspicuous use of wide-angle

deep-focus photography, which renders each interior eerily compressed and all exteriors airy and

ominous at the same time.” (Oleszczyk) This dichotomous relationship was a conscious decision

for Żuławski, who notes in the commentary that he wanted the film to be cool and detached; but

also said that people are trapped in interior spaces. In apartments there is a sense of being

“locked and moving about in this cage all the time.” (Żuławski) Thus, every aspect of the

camerawork, movement, arrangement, and technical specifications, all service the themes of the

film. The colors on display in the film were also intentional and implemented in order to

heighten various ideas of the filmmaker.

There are five significant colors that Possession uses in its muted palette, blue, yellow,

grey, white, and green. In his commentary, Żuławski describes several of them. Blue is the

predominant color of the film, dominating the shared apartment of Mark and Anna. It is the color

of separation, despair, and loneliness. (Chapman) It is the color of their unhappy marriage. And

shades how they feel whenever they are near each other. Yellow on the other hand, is the color of

Anna’s secret apartment. As a color, it represents the promise of a new beginning. (Chapman) A
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place that she can call her own and use to fulfill her own desires. It is a warm space that comforts

her as it simultaneously repulses every man that enters it, causing them sickened disgust. Next

there are the grey, vacant Berlin streets that connect the two apartments. They are neutral and a

non-factor for these characters. Their concerns and passions are locked into the warm and cold

colors of their individual living spaces. White is the color of Helen’s living space. It is pure,

fresh, and new. Where the yellow apartment of Anna is a transition into something new, the

white apartment of Helen is a tabula rasa. Finally, there is green. It only appears in one place in

this film, the eyes of the doppelgängers. In color theory, green symbolizes jealousy, growth,

harmony, and has a strong emotional correspondence to safety. (Chapman) All of which are

attributable to the doubles of Anna and Mark. They are superior versions of the lovers

themselves. They exist independent of the struggle that is ripping the two main characters apart.

All these colors reinforce character traits, ideology, and reflect feelings at various points in the

film. The final factor in the film’s visual construction that we will discuss is its surreal setting.

The environment of Possession is one of unreality. It seems to resemble our world, but

with alterations that produce an uncanny dissimilarity. In his commentary Żuławski notes how,

“The film begins as ordinary, then goes one level above that, to give a mythic dimension.”

(Żuławski) He says that he achieves this effect by taking familiar aspects of reality and

combining them in a way that just doesn’t fit. Two examples of this in practice come from the

cafe confrontation, and the first PI following Anna. At the café we have a seemingly normal

domestic dispute. A couple in the process of a breakup, neither of them accepting weakness from

the other. Things take a surreal turn when they fly into a rage and Mark chases after Anna. They

scream and shout, she throws chairs in his path, and it takes a mob of kitchen attendants tackling

Mark to end the scene. These radical actions don’t fit the situation. Instead they show a hyper
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reality, one where people lose all sense of self and their emotions take over. The detective chase

is another familiar situation that diverts into the unreal. We begin with a standard cat and mouse

chase, but things are off in how the detective takes little heed of space or distance. He’s

practically stepping into her as he does a sort of Monty Python speed walk, standard next to her

on a train, and darting past her front door as if it isn’t obvious that he’s pursuing. Much like the

café scene, this has the effect of unsettling the audience in a subtle way. We are led to believe we

know how things will play out, but the unfamiliar elements shade that with uncertainty. We are

thrown off kilter and left to conclude that anything can happen. By the time Mark decides to

follow Anna into her madness, all these small elements have compounded into an unstable

world. One where old woman cackle at flaming apartments, men have shootouts in residential

neighborhoods, and doppelgängers take the place of people. Much of this instability and

uncertainty also results in horrific situations

Possession also uses horrific imagery to deliver its themes, which ultimately center

around human relationships. Michael Brooke comments on this in his review for Sight & Sound.

He writes, “As with David Lynch’s [Eraserhead,] Żuławski seems to be trying to get to the very

heart of what makes human relationships function (or otherwise), fusing their physical and

psychological aspects in ways that defy strict biological sense but nonetheless seem unnervingly

plausible.” (Brooke) In this way, the film employs both physically repulsive imagery, and

psychologically provocative situations.

Much of the controversy surrounding the film stems from the horrific images that

Żuławski is all too eager to display. These include a monster, body horror, self-mutilation, and

physical harm. First there is the monster that the film is known for. It vaguely resembles a

humanoid, even possessing a set of green human eyes, but its tentacles and slime covered
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exterior make it disgusting and repulsive. Every time we see it there is a pool of blood and bile

that oozes over the floor. It never physically harms anyone, in fact it is shown to be somewhat

timid, but its presence always forebodes violence. The disgusting nature of the thing and its

relation to Anna give the film an element of body horror as well. We see this disgusting inhuman

thing, and then she talks about making love to it all night long. The very thought of such a

relationship is enough to make the skin crawl. At the climax we witness the sexual act, the beast

draped over Anna as she moans in ecstasy. Its tentacles wrapping around her body in an

insidious fashion. The scene perverts our expectations of intimacy and contaminates the act of

sex itself. The subway scene also displays the transformative and repulsive aspects of body

horror, as we see Anna miscarrying a monster. Blood and pus pouring from her body as she

screams out in pain. It's another unsettling moment in a film filled with cringe inducing

spectacles.

Scenes of self-mutation and physical harm also serve to disturb and enhance the bleak

atmosphere of the film. The breadknife scene begs us to turn away. We hear it buzzing

throughout the sequence, ever present but with an uncertain destination. Then Anna puts it to her

throat, cutting through her own flesh in defiance of Mark’s controlling desires. Later Mark too

saws through bits of his skin, apparently unfazed by the pain. We are also given the gruesome

murder of the first detective with a broken bottle to his throat, and the image of Margit emerging

from an elevator, throat slit and covered in blood. All these scenes are unremittingly gruesome,

and don’t provide the release that is demonstrated in other horror films. They come after

moments of tension, but then they awkwardly linger. The people harmed sit with the pain,

suffering, either slowly accepting their fate, or withering away towards death. These are not

satisfying displays of action; they are nihilistic portrayals of bleak violence. All these elements,
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from the characters, camera, color, setting, and horror are used by Żuławski to service is themes

and messages, while promoting some unintentional interpretations as well.

PART VI: Themes and Interpretations

Possession is a complex film that covers numerous topics and is open to countless

interpretations. In this analysis we will discuss its themes of separation, the possession of

another, feminist freedom, and Żuławski’s concept of God. We begin with the dominant theme

of the film, separation.

The separation and divorce from his first wife was a creative catalyst for Żuławski. With

Possession he sought to channel the pain and emotion that he felt while moving apart from the

woman he once loved deeply. This is directly commented on the first time Anna and Mark sleep

together after he returns. The two seem like strangers as Mark tells her that he wouldn’t feel

anything if she left. This lack of feeling is further expounded upon in the breadknife scene as

they both cut themselves while expounding their lack of feeling. As Mark sits staring at his

bleeding arm, she says knowingly, “It doesn’t hurt.” To which he affirms with a depressed, “no”.

They are both so similar in their lack of compassion for one another. These are two people that

have lost all passion for each other, yet for some reason they violently fight against what they

both have realized. This desire to stay together is manifest through the doppelgängers that they

find as surrogate partners. In Helen, Mark has a version of Anna that is loving, nurturing, and

meek. She cares for his son and consoles him. She is also passive, showing up whenever he

needs her, and taking whatever direction he gives. The double of Mark is born out of Anna’s

desire to be free from her current life. She rejects both Mark and men in general and produces an
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ideal replica that will better satisfy her desires. Significantly, both doubles have green eyes. As

we discussed earlier, they represent a new beginning. Anna and Mark see no future with each

other as they are, so they have dreamed up ideal versions to preserve what love they have left.

Through this idealization, Anna also begins to construct a separate world for herself. She leaves

behind her home and son in favor of the yellow apartment. In this new space she sees hope for a

future. Mark begins to travel down a similar path when he spends the night with Helen. But after

hearing of Anna’s subway episode he decides to try and follow her into this new world, and in

the process goes mad. In his commentary Żuławski notes that separation creates a sort of

liberation. (Żuławski) He demonstrates this idea through the closing scenes of the film. The final

act of separation occurs when Anna introduces the new Mark and the original couple dies on the

staircase. Then in the last shot there is an apocalypse. In other words, the world that existed when

Anna and Mark were a couple is no longer possible. In his typically exaggerated style, Żuławski

is equating the end of a relationship to the end of the world that it existed in. But he also hints

that something new waits on the other side of this resolution, that being liberation and creation.

Another dominant theme in Possession is revealed in the title itself. David Thompson

writes, “Possession is a film about the desire for married partners to possess each other, to know

each other, and how that desire taken to neurotic extremes results in the unleashing of a

suppressed, demonic side.” (Thompson) This concept is demonstrated through Mark’s

continuous efforts to control Anna. We see his tendency towards this in a mirroring of scenes

early in the film. When he comes home from the hotel, he finds his son alone. He cleans him up

and we see a shot of Bob without a shirt. Mark has his hands around his torso as he looks into his

face. This same shot is duplicated when Anna comes home in her filthy clothes. Mark cleans her

up and before putting her to bed naked, has his hands around her nude torso, looking into her
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eyes. This pairing of shots reveals how Mark views her as someone inferior to him. Someone

who needs help, an infantile personality that requires guidance. His overbearing nature is

expanded upon in a later scene. While speaking to her he says, “When you’re away I think of

you as an animal, a woman possessed, and when you’re here it's different.” He cannot accept the

fact that she has independence and a life outside his own, even though he is the partner who is

absent more often for work. He can live a separate life, but she must remain at home, loyal, and

docile. Through Mark’s conversation with the PI, we learn that Anna was at one time employed

as a ballet instructor, but she had to give up the vocation a year before the film begins. So, she

has been forced into the role of a housewife, presumably against her will. The effect that this has

on her is illustrated best in the 8mm film that Heinrich delivers to the apartment.

While explaining why she was cruel to a student, she says several illuminating things:

“Now she will know how much will she has in her to say ‘I can do better.’ No one told me that,

That’s why I’m with you, because you say ‘I’ for me.” In this we see how she has been giving

into the possession of others. She has given her life up to them. But the next thing she says

illuminates the effect this is having on her psyche. She says, “Private life is a play of many parts

and I play them.” She isn’t living for her herself; she isn’t living truthfully. She is playing the

part of the mother, the lover, the wife in order to fill the roles that these men have created for her.

But she isn’t satisfied with this any longer. Her final statement makes this clear, “You’re looking

at me as if I need you to fill me up, as if I’m an empty space.” She’s recognizing the possession

that these men are taking, and it is driving her insane. This male induced insanity brings us to a

further interpretation of the film.

A strong case can be made for Possession being a feminist feature. As the previous

discussion made clear, Anna is driven to her state in the film because of the passive nature of
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men, and a male dominated society. She has had every bit of agency stripped away from her

piece by piece. Her vocation, her freedom to leave the apartment, even her sexual agency, which

is shown to be dominated by Heinrich in their one interaction together. In speaking on Anna’s

choices in the film, Żuławski notes that she cannot articulate the way she feels through words.

Thus, “the only way Anna can make things clear for herself, is doing. She acts.” (Żuławski) This

gives her a forward momentum that becomes unstoppable over the course of the film. She takes

her life in her own hands, divorcing herself from the men in her life and constructing a new

existence of her own. This is represented by the yellow apartment, and the monster that she

miscarries in the subway. In the blue shared home with Mark, she is always subjected to the will

of another. Every action she has is scrutinized. But in the yellow space she has the agency and

the control. Every man that enters this area is immediately intimidated by this reality. The two

detectives stumble about before she overpowers them. And even Heinrich, who arrives with the

pretense that she will be captivated by his sexual advances, is quickly deterred by her new force

of will. Anna’s relationship with the monster is also motivated by a rejection of male

domination. She moved from Mark to Heinrich in a bid to gain some agency. But finding this

new relationship to be more of the same, she rejects all men in favor of a tentacled creature,

something explicitly “un-male”. And through this action, she creates a new partner. One that

Michael Atkinson describes as, “a simulacrum of [Mark], a man perfectly formed around the

needs of his woman and child.” (Atkinson) In all these ways, the film shows a woman taking

charge of her own destiny and changing the world around her in order to achieve her own goals.

The final message of the film that we will discuss is the director’s concept of God as a

disease. As previously mentioned, Żuławski had a troubling early life. A child of WWII and

Soviet Poland, he was no stranger to suffering and fear by the time he became a filmmaker. As
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such, many of his films deal with the relationship between human life and suffering. In an

exchange between Heinrich and Mark, the former says, “Nothing to fear but god, whatever that

means to you.” Mark replies, “For me, God is a disease.” To which Heinrich responds, “That’s

why through disease we can see God.” This is a puzzling exchange that some might write off as

flowery pretension. But in Żuławski’s world, one filled with violence, sex, and pain, it is natural

that we should be given an ugly god. He believes that through this human suffering we find the

meaning and significance in life. We need to embrace this darkness in order to truly live. In his

commentary on the film, Żuławski discusses how he dislikes Heinrich’s various ideologies that

supposedly give him some insight into living. He says that the man is still just as lost as everyone

else at the face of chaos, violence, and pain. He then furthers this idea by posing the question, “Is

there anarchy on the other side of this? Not necessarily, I think there is human decency.”

(Żuławski) Thus, to Żuławski, God can be seen at the darkest points. We cannot hope to find true

meaning in stability, it is only when we are tested, when life crumbles, when we are in crisis, that

we can see the larger picture.

Conclusion

In this discussion we have gone over the various aspects that play a role in Andrzej

Żuławski’s Possession. We began with a review of the director’s early life and films. We saw

how his harsh upbringing, hermeticism, and divorce all informed the creation and elements in the

film. Then we reviewed the content of the film. We provided a brief overview of the plot, then

examined how the acting, characters, camerawork, color, setting, and horror were used to

enhance the film’s messages. And then we discussed several themes and interpretations that all
Campbell 20

the other elements present. Żuławski’s film is not perfect, but it succeeds in many ways at

putting forth some complex ideas that are not usually tackled by horror films, or film in general.
Campbell 21

Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael. “Trouble Every Day From Amour Fou to Primal Scream: Inside the Movie

Madhouse of Andrzej Zulawski”. Film Comment, Vol. 39, no. 1, 2003, pp. 38-42.

Brooke, Michael. “Possession”. Sight & Sound Magazine, Vol. 23, no. 9, 2013, pp. 36-36. pp.

100-101

Cash, Justin. “Poor Theatre Conventions.” The Drama Teacher, 2014,

thedramateacher.com/poor-theatre-conventions/.

Chapman, Cameron. “Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color.” Smashing

Magazine, 28 Jan. 2010, www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/01/color-theory-for-

designers-part-1-the-meaning-of-color/.

Lucas, Tim. “Andrzej Zulawski (1940-)”. Sight & Sound Magazine, Vol. 19, no. 9, 2009, pp. 36-

36.

Oleszczyk, Michał. “No Exorcist Can Handle Possession.” RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC,

9 Feb. 2012, www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/no-exorcist-can-handle-

possession.

Thompson, David. “The Man Who Would Be Christ”. Sight & Sound Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 10,

1998, pp. 14-16.

Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “The Nightmarish World of Andrzej Żuławski.” AV Club, Onion, Inc., 21

Apr. 2018, film.avclub.com/the-nightmarish-world-of-andrzej-zulawski-1825424360.

Wilkins, Budd. “Review: Possession.” Slant Magazine, Slant Magazine LLC, 29 Nov. 2011,

www.slantmagazine.com/film/possession-5938/.

Zulawski o Zulawskim. Dir. Jakub Skoczen. Canal+ Polska, 2000. Film.