During the invasion of Poland by the Prussian army in 1793, a mysterious, nameless stranger rescues Jacob, a political prisoner sentenced for an assassination attempt on the King from a convent turned jail. The stranger pleads with Jacob to return home, and sends him on his way along with a nun for company, however when Jacob arrives back home he discovers, much to his horror, that everything he had known prior to his arrest has drastically changed, with the discovery of his previous fiancés pregnancy and marriage to his former best friend as well as the death of his father during his imprisonment. Unable to come to terms with the chaos his life has descended into, Jacob’s sanity slowing begins to deteriorate while all the while being sporadically visited by the stranger who released him.
The best possible way to try and describe the experience of watching a film like Diabel (The Devil) would be that it could be viewed from the most comfortable and warmest setting imaginable yet for the films 2 hour duration no warmth and comfort would be found, which would be the appropriate feeling as the world represented by Zulawski in Diabel is one where all familiarity, comfort and humanity have been forcibly removed and replaced with confusion and lunacy, and a spastic and energetic lunacy at that. This may have only been Zulawski’s second feature but already several of his signatures are established, the most obvious being the manic performances but also Zulawski’s frantic, oftentimes handheld camerawork which results in the viewer becoming as disoriented as Jacob, and the aforementioned cold feeling of the film is amplified by the films taking place during the bitter Polish winter. At this point its well known that while the storyline of the film may have been dealing with 18th century politics, in actuality Zulawski was making a fierce modern (“modern” for 1972 anyway) political statement, venting his rage at the Communist secret police in Poland at the time taking advantage of the impressionable Polish youth. Zulawski would later explore similar themes in films such as La Femme Publique (1984) and L’amour Braque (1985) but Diabel remains his most vicious condemnation of such groups and the extreme tone of the film is not unlike the fear and confusion felt by many during times of intense political unrest.
Despite the fact that Zulawski made the film, as he put it, “into the style of 18th-century costume and masks”, ultimately the Polish authorities saw thought it and the film was instantly banned and it wasn’t until 16 years later in 1988 when the film finally saw a release. Mondo Vision, the company responsible for brilliant DVD releases of Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer (1975), La Femme Publique, L’amour Braque and Szamanka have Diabel listed as a future release on their website along with several other Zulawski films such as The Third Part of the Night, The Silver Globe, Possession (1981), Boris Godunov (1989) and La Note Bleue (1992). Until that release sees the light of day the easiest way to see the film would be to pick up the Polart DVD under the film’s English title The Devil. Polart also released a disc of The Silver Globe. Like the majority of Zulawski’s films, Diabel is obviously not for everyone. Its a film that has the potential to scare away just as many, if not more viewers that will end up appreciating Zulawski’s twisted vision yet at the same time its an absolutely essential film to recommend to those interested in Zulawski as virtually all of the man’s calling cards are on display. Diabel remains one of Zulawski’s most potent cinematic statements as well as being unlike anything else in 70’s European transgressive cinema.