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The Polish expatriate filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski is one of the cinema’s most insane filmmakers, and this is one of his wildest films, an unapologetically grotesque and over-the-top 18th Century-set study of madness and anarchy.  For those who can stomach it, this is a fascinating viewing.

The Package
     Although it may seem difficult to believe, this frenzied gorefest was in fact a serious political drama made under the auspices of filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, the creator of acclaimed politically-minded dramas like MAN OF IRON and DANTON (and who later had his name removed from the credits). DIABEL (THE DEVIL in English, but as there are so many films with that particular title, we’ll stick with DIABEL) was intended by writer/director Andrzej Zulawski as a commentary on a particular late-60’s incident.  Sometime during the heady days of 1968, Communist authorities provoked a group of naive Polish students into staging a series of anti-censorship protests, then used the event as an excuse for a wave of repression during which many were jailed.  Since he couldn’t make a film about the event with the Polish government’s money, Zulawski, whose second film DIABEL was, set it in the 18th Century, in an atmosphere of total moral disintegration precipitated by the Prussian invasion of Poland.  The title character, a mysterious figure who goads the protagonist into committing a series of outrageous murders, is the apparent stand-in for the Communist government.
     According to Zulawski, it was the film’s political aspect rather than the sex and violence that got it banned for 15 years.  Polish authorities apparently told the Soviet Union’s minister of culture (as recounted by Zulawski): “We suspect that this is something not really about the 18th Century, but we are not so sure.”  As a result, DIABEL, completed in 1972, was shelved by the Communist Ministry of Culture and wasn’t released until 1987--and even then given only extremely sporadic distribution.

The Story
     The opening scenes, set in a debauched convent teeming with orgies and insanity, pretty much set the tone. Jakub, a young lunatic imprisoned for conspiring against the king, is unexpectedly freed by a mysterious stranger.  Together with an insane nun, Jakub sets out across a nightmarish snow-bound landscape teeming with senseless violence. Returning home, he finds that his fiancé has shacked up with his best friend, his father has committed suicide and his mother is a prostitute (whom Jakub nearly has sex with on at least two occasions).  Meanwhile, the mysterious, perhaps supernatural stranger seems to be shadowing Jakub’s every move, as absolute chaos engulfs the land and the latter descends further into madness (fitting right in with the world around him!).  He embarks on a gory killing spree, with the stranger always there to help out, at one point even placing the murder instrument, a straight razor, in Jakub’s hand.  A violent showdown between the two is inevitable, leading to a gruesome ending and a totally out-of-left-field twist.

The Direction
     With echoes of Fellini and Jodorowski, Andrzej Zulawski has created a frenzied and bizarre film both puzzling and strangely exhilarating.  Spastic camerawork and convulsive performances (the actors often seem to be undergoing epileptic fits) flawlessly convey a degenerating society overtaken by madness, enhanced by unflinching gore and lots of soft-core sex.  Anyone who’s seen subsequent Zulawski films like the nutzoid humping cucumber monster classic POSSESSION (1980) and the near-indescribable SZAMANKA (1996) should have some idea what to expect.  Needless to say, however, this undeniably impressive but ultra-horrific film is NOT for everybody!

Vital Statistics

Zespol Filmowy X

Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Producer: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Andrzej Zulawski
Cinematography: Maciej Kijowski
Editor: Krzysztof Osiecki
Cast: Leszek Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Iga Mayr, Wiktor Sadecki, Michal Grudzinski, Monika Niemczyk

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