Remarkably, this was Polish director Andrzej Zulawski's debut feature. Coming from a family full of actors, directors, poets, writers, and general great thinkers, Zulawski strides into this film with confidence, focus and a craft that takes the majority of directors years to perfect. I was interested in this film after reading about the rather strange plot line, and having a keen interest in Polish cinema, notably the work of Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda. And I'm pleased my I followed my curiosity, as the film is a hypnotic and nightmarish piece of cinema that encourages discussion, interpretation and repeat viewings, something that I find with only a few films, especially straight after the first viewing.
The film begins in a remote countryside house in Nazi-occupied Poland, where Michal (Leszek Teleszynski) stays with his wife and children, until the Nazis come along a murder everyone while Michal lies hidden in the woods. He journeys back to Lwow where he joins the resistance, almost instantly being tracked down and almost murdered. He manages to escape when the pursuers mistake an innocent bystander wearing similar clothes to be him and shoot him dead. Michal comforts the dead man's wife, while noticing that the mysterious woman bears an uncanny resemblance to his own dead wife. Being a typhus sufferer, Michal decides to put his misfortune to use and earns money becoming a lice feeder, strapping small boxes full of the bloodsuckers down his legs to let them feed, which are later used to develop a vaccine.
What stems from the relatively normal opening scene can only be described as a chaotic descent into instability, as the story moves along slowly and confusingly. The decision to use the same actress (Malgorzata Braunek) to play multiple roles is never clearly explained or made clear. The obvious and initial reason would apparently be the inability of Michal to let go of his wife's death, seeing her everywhere, but as the film goes on, you wonder about the mental stability of our hero, or even ponder if this (or indeed the whole film) is just a product of his typhoid-addled brain. Scenes randomly blend into the next, and you have no idea where the film is going or will end up. It is truly a mentally tiring experience, and all the better for it.
Zulawski seems to be fascinated with lice and the feeding process that the film depicts. He films in close detail, with some effectively loose- hand held work, how the lice are packed together in a tiny box, with a mesh screen in place to allow the creatures to feed through. Later, during the vaccination process, we are treated to a microscope POV of the lice being carefully placed on a petri dish one by one, only to be torn open by a pair of tweezers to extract their infected blood. Do the lice represent our protagonist, or the nature of the human race? Or perhaps it's a commentary on the war and the destruction of the Nazi party? No answers are clear with the film, and is best enjoyed as an interpretive piece of art cinema. I use the word 'enjoy' loosely, as when the climax approaches, it almost becomes a piece of psychological horror, one that genuinely disturbs in a way that only a true artist can achieve.
It will not appeal to everybody, but no matter what your view or opinion, it will no doubt have a profound effect on the emotions and the brain, and will linger for a long time.