The legend of Lou Reed’s Berlin (1973), the brutal concept album about the disintegration of a marriage, goes something like this: coming off his first big solo success with Transformer (1972), Reed and producer Bob Ezrin inexplicably set out to make “the most depressing album of all time.” And if you know (and love) Berlin like I do, then you know they accomplished this goal with ease.
Another staggeringly tragic work of art emerged a few years later that would in some ways make an apt companion piece to Berlin. Andrzej Żuławski’s notoriously controversial film Possession (1981) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival forty years ago. Shot entirely in West Berlin (there’s Cold War era Berlin again), the director’s only English-language film is, like Reed’s Berlin, a disturbing, haunting, and relentlessly bleak look at the end of a marriage. Possession though, also adds jaw-dropping horror to the mix. Żuławski drops us into this disintegration in media res. The first scene establishes that Mark (an absurdly young, wiry, and wired Sam Neill) has been away on business and that time apart hasn’t the situation: his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) still wants a divorce. She’s already mentally and emotionally breaking away—not just from the marriage, but also from reality itself. It doesn’t take long for Żuławski to dial the film’s emotional intensity up to eleven, with Adjani and Neill screaming, crying, and convulsing in excruciating scenes of intense discord. Remarkably, the actors maintain that intensity level throughout the rest of the film’s running time. Adjani’s performance is one for the ages, both physically and emotionally draining on her and the audience. It’s almost impossible to think of another performance in cinema that matches the almost-unbearably raw and devastating impact of Adjani’s work in Possession. The toll it must have taken on her had to be enormous.
Anna’s mental deterioration and erratic behavior intensifies in one brutal scene after another, leaving Mark to take on primary care duties for their young son. Drifting in and out of the apartment, Anna is calm and quiet one moment, then unpredicable and volatile the next. Mark is downright terrifying at times too, especially when he finally loses control and starts smacking Anna around. This sudden physical brutality is shocking. It also alters audience perception: before that moment, Mark seemed like the “wronged” spouse. Of course all along there were obvious examples of his narcissism and cluelessness, but in that moment when he hits Anna we see no hope whatsoever for these two to ever work this out.
As difficult as that scene is to sit through it’s nothing compared to the horrors that Żuławski still has in store for us. Possession is the sort of film that should be viewed blind, with no preconceptions beyond knowing that it’s considered an uncompromising and complex piece of art. The particulars, however, should be discovered by audiences organically, scene by scene, allowing for maximum impact as the chaos builds towards a horrifying conclusion. That’s why I’m choosing not to reveal any more of the narrative. Because just when you think the dial can’t go any higher than eleven, it does. And then, when you think it can’t go higher than that, it does. And as Żuławski cranks up the insanity the buckets of blood and gory body horror begin to emerge and before you know it, you’re in deep with a truly horrifying work of emotional and psychological devastation. This marriage doesn’t just crumble; it implodes. Spectacularly.
I haven’t even mentioned the poor sap Anna is having an affair with, Heinrich (Heinz Bennett, oozing unctuous charm), who becomes an unwitting participant in Anna and Mark’s symphony of degradation. Heinrich is a sort of twisted comic relief, spending his time onscreen spouting philosophical treatises about life, the universe, and everything to a cynical Mark, often while inexplicably caressing Mark’s upper body; theatrically high-kicking Mark when the latter tries to beat him up; scootering around the city on his motorcycle; and rolling dramatically along the walls of his apartment while delivering his rambling monologues, as if he and the walls are magnetized. Heinrich is another example of how Żuławski keeps us off-balance at every turn. Everything about this film is beyond weird.
The film’s most infamous scenes are likely the ones involving gore and fountains of blood (and puss) gushing from open wounds. After all, the film wasn’t brandished with the “video nasty” tag upon release in the UK for nothing. During one particularly heated argument between Mark and Anna in their kitchen, both characters wind up slicing themselves with an electric meat carving knife; for Anna it’s as if she couldn’t stand the sound of Mark’s hectoring for one more second, so self-harm probably seemed like a viable way out. Then again, there’s something decidedly wrong with Anna, something that goes beyond mental illness and into the realm of something scarier. She asks Mark “Do you believe in God,” before blissfully declaring “It’s in me.” Something is indeed in her, and that something is fucking her brains out in the squalid, decaying apartment she’s been keeping on the side, unbeknownst to Mark. In the film’s most difficult-to-watch scene, a flashback, Anna is in full-on possession mode, writhing and throwing her body around with reckless fervor in a dark, dank empty subway corridor. The scene goes on for what feels like forever, with Adjani violently hurling and jerking herself to and fro. The spasms seem both orgasmic and dangerous. Adjani has recounted Żuławski’s simple, blunt direction to her in this scene as “pretend you’re fucking the air.” The scene culminates in a startling, bloody mess, leaving us nearly as emotionally ravaged as Anna.
Adjani is the revelation here, holding back nothing, expelling every ounce of emotion with naked, raw power, and going for broke every moment she’s onscreen. It’s no surprise she won Best Actress at Cannes that year. Almost all of the actors in the film engage in a “para-theatrical” style that, according to an essay by Daniel Bird in the booklet for MondoVision’s lavish Blu-ray release, might have been inspired Zulawski’s exposure to innovative Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski. Bird has also described the film’s performances as “surrealistic in the sense that they exceeded realism.” This surrealism is on display in almost every scene, as both the actors and the camera move wildly about, while at the same time the actors deliver their dialogue with maximum intensity, producing a disorienting effect on viewers that mimics the utter madness on display.
This sense of madness courses through nearly every frame of the film. Like Lou Reed’s Berlin, Possession leaves you feeling completely worn out. In the case of Berlin it’s the relentless nihilism bubbling to the surface in track after track; while in Possession it’s the staggering insanity on display throughout that ultimately sends us, the audience, off the deep end right alongside Anna and Mark. Influenced by Żuławski’s own divorce, the socio-political undercurrents of the Cold War era; Berlin’s cold, sterile apartments and eerily empty streets; and others avant-garde artforms, Possession is a staggering work of cinematic depravity. For Time Out, Tom Huddleston observed, “There are plenty of movies which seem to have been made by madmen. Possession may be the only film in existence which is itself mad: a work of mind-melting ferocity and breathless originality, its moments of terrifying lucidity only serve to highlight the staggering derangement at its core. It’s not the characters who are possessed, but the film itself.” This is ultimately the impression one is left with after surviving a viewing of Possession: the film is a work of pure madness, the sort of art that, once consumed, makes us feel as if we’ve actually survived some sort of ordeal. Make no mistake, you don’t simply watch Possession; you survive it. Just barely.