The Devil (Diabeł)

(Andrzej Żuławski, Poland, 1972)

BY TOM PHELAN | December 30, 2023

Andrzej Żuławski will be your guide through hell, giddy as Virgil his first day on the job. He conceived his second theatrical feature, 1972’s The Devil (aka Diabel), as a political allegory for the witch hunts launched by the Polish Communist government in response to the 1968 student uprisings, but it is also a convulsive work of revenge horror, a wintry ride well beyond the limits of sanity. The trajectory of Jakub (Leszek Teleszyński), an antihero who commits to evil in response to a corrupt world, will be familiar to anyone who has seen Woyzeck, Taxi Driver, or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But the main touchstone is Hamlet, as performed by a randy troupe of actors in a mirroring play within the film that only aggravates Jakub’s mother obsession. The original “scourge and minister” himself (or the actor playing Hamlet) will fall to our revenger’s straight razor before all the bodies are counted.

Set in Poland during its second partition in the 1790s, the film begins with a blast of prog rock. A nameless man (Wojciech Pszoniak) in black cape and tricorn hat—shall we go ahead and call him the Devil, though the title could also refer to Jakub?—rides his horse past raging fires to a convent caught up in the ultraviolence of the Prussian invasion. Nuns are shrieking, soldiers are racing around, and bodies are writhing on the floor: it’s a frantic opening whose intensity barely lets up. Two political prisoners, Jakub and his friend Tomasz, are being held here after a failed assassination attempt on the king. The Devil shoots Tomasz, then offers Jakub freedom under the condition that he return directly home to his family. By story’s end, we will think Tomasz got the better deal. Jakub does return home, only to find that his fiancée has wed his betrayer, his father has blown his brains out, and his sister has gone insane.

The Devil, like a Dickensian spirit in a sinister version of A Christmas Carol, takes Jakub on a hellish tour of the latter’s family and friends. He pours poison in Jakub’s ear, spinning true tales of incest, rape, and treachery, culminating in a trip to his mother’s house of prostitution. When Jakub can take no more, the Devil places the straight razor in his hand and introduces him to the topic of “cleansing.” Thus begins a killing spree that is grim to watch. The loquacious Devil keeps Jakub company along with a mostly silent nun (Monika Niemczyk)—abducted from the convent in the beginning—who has been reduced to catatonic terror by the world around her. Jakub clings to her, carrying her around on his horse like a toy or a religious idol he can’t quite give up.

Though it’s an exhausting film, The Devil rewards the viewer in need of catharsis. As in Żuławski’s beloved Possession (1981), actors channel emotion in the form of seizures, their bodies trembling and twitching to express an immoderate horror that words cannot. The handheld camera stalks characters through ecstasies of madness, as if trying to crawl into their skin. The only relief is the dark joy that Pszoniak provides with his kinetic performance as the Devil. His tumbling mood swings, his mordant humor—“I always wanted to be a dancer”—seduce the viewer right along with Jakub. And the Devil’s last dance, when it comes, is well worth the wait—though it is the nun who has the final word. 🩸


a writer living outside Philadelphia, is currently working on a horror project set in western Pennsylvania. He co-wrote the movie Anamorph, starring Willem Dafoe.

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