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A story of depravity, anger, and difficult to analyze religious symbolism repeatedly condemned by the Catholic Church, Polish director Andrzej Zulawski's "The Devil" (1972) is not a film for the easily offended.
In war-thorn Poland the Prussian Army has besieged a half-dilapidated convent. Amidst the chaos a supposedly insane man by the name of Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski) is rushed away by a nameless stranger dressed in black. Once far and away from the Prussians the man in black urges Jakub to go home. When he arrives he discovers that his father has burnt down their house and committed suicide, his pregnant fiancée has married another man, and his mother has become a whore. Followed by the man in black and struggling to piece everything together Jakub is quickly labeled a mad man. Yet, he appears to be the only sane human being in a world full of lunatics.
Loaded with political innuendo The Devil is a loud denunciation of the Polish state and its socio-political order from the early 70s. Fractured into small bits of seemingly incoherent stories (Jakub's past is told in a confusing manner where plenty is left unaddressed) pic is likely to appeal to those unfamiliar with Polish history as a surrealistic work by a man with an unstoppable imagination. For those versed in the trickery world of Eastern-European directors and their anti-censorship maneuvers pic is more likely to be seen as a classic example of pre-glasnost critique.
The crushing amount of violence The Devil offers however presents quite an intriguing dilemma. There is something unusual about the manner in which Zulawski links anger with pain and delusion, past with present, irony with reality. It is all warped in a mind-boggling collage of images whose supposed agenda was to reveal the barbaric nature of communism, those who served it as docile puppets.
Yet, I am having a difficult time agreeing that this would be precisely the effect The Devil would have on viewers unfamiliar with Zulawski's challenging style. Unlike his more sensual work (La Fidelite) most of what takes place here is far less transparent, far more difficult to rationalize. In fact, aside from the exploitative Szamanka there is no doubt in my mind that this truly is Zulawski's most delusional film.
The technical presentation is equally intriguing. The Devil plays out mostly as a period piece (detail on costumes and architecture is notable) yet the camera is constantly in motion creating a sickening vertigo effect. The prolonged scenes where Jakub is seen struggling to grasp the moral erosion of his family are shot with an impressive sense of direction - the panic, desperation, and anger are perfectly captured.
How Does the DVD Look?
There is a lot that is wrong with this transfer. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.69:1 without an anamorphic enhancement. In addition, there is plenty of "ghosting" and "combing" which I am convinced was inherited by having this transfer improperly copied from the existing POLART print. In fact, I have every reason to believe that even POLART are in a possession of an analog master whose overall quality is rather questionable. Truth be told, however, the disc produced by Facets is a substantially better looking than the VHS I have in my library. I own a second-hand copy of this film on VHS and the difference is striking - there is more clarity here, colors are easier to see (the dark and muddy scenes are still of concern), and print damage is not as big of an issue as it is on the VHS. To sum it all up it is a small miracle that this film actually appeared in an English-friendly form. And that is the truth.
How Does the DVD Sound?
The disc arrives with a Polish mono track and optional English subtitles. Surprisingly the audio is quite clean and without any overly disturbing dropouts/hissing. Dialog is fairly easy to follow while the music is for the most part well balanced with the actors' speech.
The only extra here is a text section of filmographies for Andrzej Zulawski, Leszek Teleszynski, and Wojciech Pszoniak. There are also a few trailers for the other Facets releases.
I am going to recommend The Devil based entirely on the fact that this release is the only way to see Zulawski's film in an English-friendly form. Yes, I am aware that French distribs MALAVIDA have announced a collection of Zulawski films to be released this November, with The Devil included, but none of these discs will be English-friendly. So, if you should have any interest in this most unique Polish director I suggest you grab a copy of this disc, it may well be your only chance to see The Devil.