Retrospective: Possession

Anna: [to Zimmermann, about the creature] He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is a film that’s impossible to prepare for. It is a film that refuses to let go once it has you in its tentacles – and after it’s over, you’ll definitely come back for more.

Possession is centered around a married couple, Mark and Anna. Mark is an international spy. He’s been away on a mission involving a mysterious man with pink socks, and has finally come back home. Anna has been lonely, stressed, and unfaithful during her husband’s absence. One night as they lie together in bed, he tells her that he feels nothing for her anymore. She feels the same way.

Shortly after that, all hell breaks loose.

Anna has two lovers. The first is Heinrich – a pseudo-intellectual, new age mystic who has helped Anna to embrace her newfound freedom while her husband has been away. The first time Mark confronts Heinrich, the former gets his ass kicked by the latter. And yet, there is something about Mark that, in a strange way, endears him to Heinrich.


The second lover becomes Anna’s obsession. It ravishes her, possesses her, and empowers her. This second lover is an otherworldly being. It is a Lovecraftian creature whose lust can never be satiated, and who feeds off of sex and sweat and blood – three things which Anna gives willfully and in abundance.

Anna’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, as she flies into histrionics and fits of uncontrollable rage – her face twisting and contorting, as she can barely communicate with Mark without screaming and threatening to kill herself. All of this begins to affect Mark as well. He spends his days at home with their son, regretting the ways in which he has neglected Anna and hating her all the same. His attempts at reconciliation are met with threats of suicide and acts of self-mutilation from Anna.

In the midst of all of this turmoil within their marriage, Anna has begun to protect her alien lover by any means necessary, even murder.

Something like grace is found in the character of Helen, Anna’s doppelgänger and schoolteacher to Mark and Anna’s young boy. She is an angelic presence through which restoration may be possible.

Possession was filmed in Berlin, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This atmosphere of oppression weighs heavily on the film, making it seem all the more claustrophobic and threatening. Anna’s distressing quest for true freedom is presented with horrific elements, in an attempt to mask any overt criticisms of the political situation at the time of filming. Zulawski’s work was always in danger of being censored, so he relied heavily on metaphor and cleverly utilized storytelling devices and cinematic tropes in order to convey the message he desired. At this point in his life, Zulawski found himself in the middle of a nasty divorce, and so much of the anger brought on by that situation finds its way into Possession, as well.

Possession is a vitriolic film, but it is not without moments of grace – even redemption. Before an unforgettable scene in a subway – in which Anna flips out and then miscarries something unknown, while slinging her groceries about and rolling around in filth – Anna visits a church, stares at an image of Christ, and pleads for mercy, for forgiveness, and for peace – yet she can’t find the words to express how she feels. She doesn’t speak to Christ here. She is reduced to grunts and moans, on the verge of tears.  It’s a powerful scene that may be the heart of the film. But who is to say? This film has so many layers. It’s impossible to master on two or three viewings.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill give career-best performances here as Anna and Mark. Adjani deservedly won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Both actors are pushed by Zulawski to take their performances to near-operatic extremes, and as a result, the film becomes a force of nature. Heinz Bennent also stands out as Heinrich, in a role that is truly one of a kind. Heinrich is the best supporting character in any film, ever. If you’ve seen the film, you know this to be true.

The creature effects were done by Carlo Rambaldi of Alien fame, and his work here is incredible. Once you’ve seen his creation in the film, you can’t exactly un-see it.

One of the true high points of the film is the work from cinematographer, Bruno Nuytten. Through the use of handheld, Steadicam, and beautifully composed dolly shots, the camera is almost a character in and of itself. It weaves effortlessly through scenes, doing its damnedest to keep up with the ferocity of the performances – and in this and all else, it succeeds. Gorgeous work.

Possession is pure artistry, a beautiful and terrifying masterpiece from one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. It is available on Blu-ray from Mondo Vision in a limited edition, as well as a special edition. It is the first ever US release of this film, and it is highly recommended that you seek it out as soon as possible. This isn’t something that will sit on the shelf and collect dust. This is a work that you will explore time and time again, because the possibilities that lie within are endless.

You don’t want to miss this one. Trust me.




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