Possession: The Horror of Circumstance
There are few instances in media where the horror of reality is as surreal as the fiction it creates. When Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski was forced to complete work on his film On The Silver Globe by the Soviet regime he found both his professional and personal life in tatters, returning home to find that his wife and mother of his child had left him to run off with another man. To use a cliche it was in this moment the monster known as Possession was birthed and the film that would define the storied career of Andrzej Zulawski set into motion. It's preproduction lasting multiple years and experiencing production woes that could make for their own drama, from the disappearance of its original producer to a limited budget and shooting schedule, Possession finally came into being in 1981. The result being one of the most highly polarizing films and debated films of the 80's and an important time capsule to one of the tensest times in European politics. If you noticed a trend in my reviews thus far, it's probably that I tend to review horror films and while that isn't a wrong assessment, much of what I review are films that I feel are culturally relevant, films that have either been galvanized by their age or tap into an aspect of modern culture that I find worth discussion in a written forum. Much of what I look to discuss are films that are simply worth seeing and that includes the films that I have had a negative slant on, while I very much am against the notion "elevated horror" which seemingly makes its way into the ether every few years, if any film comes close to earning such a distinction it is Possession.
The opening of Possession feels almost post apocalyptic as the moving camera surveys the state of urban decay as our protagonist Mark returns home to West Berlin after being on a mission on the other side of the wall. He like the film's director returns home to find his life in shambles after his wife Anna reveals she is leaving him for another man for seemingly dubious reasons. The character the Berlin Wall plays in Possession is as important as the walls featured in another film I've reviewed The Devils, much like that film the wall helps to create the feeling that the world beyond these characters does not exist and a sense of claustrophobia. You feel watching that there is a false sense of safety around this world and at any moment the state of decay will erode all around it. It's also worth noting that the camera from the opening second of this film to the very end is almost never static to the point where it's almost nauseating and I truly have never seen a film quite like this. It makes The Evil Dead feel like an early sound film and the queasiness it creates immediately intensifies the arc of Mark's story, as from the word go Mark's world never stops moving and the chaotic nature of the camera serves to intensify the chaotic nature of the characters. Scenes such as Mark's debriefing that would be painfully stagnant in another film are captured brilliantly by the swirling handheld camera of Andrzej Jaroszewicz. In contrast the scene of an argument between Mark and Anna in a cafe is still and has the feeling of a kettle boiling until the point of explosion. It would be easy to compare the first third of the film to something like The Shining and label the film with the title of a slow burn but Possession is anything but, from the very beginning it asks you to accept a level of intensity that's almost unbearable as you witness the complete dissolution of a marriage while a child is caught in between. I compare the relationship of Mark and Anna to that of a Newton's cradle as they are two separate forces being brought together by the gravity of a center object constantly bouncing off one another. I watched this film on of all days Valentine's Day and I'm surprised none of my neighbors called the cops thinking there was domestic dispute. There are still scenes that are very much stuck with over a week after I've screened the film. But oh we're just getting started.
After confronting Anna's former lover Heinrich and a of violent argument with Anna resulting in her nearly commits suicide by running into an oncoming truck which causes the cars it's transporting to collapse and crash in a scene that would cause a safety coordinator a massive heart attack, Mark has Anna followed to discover her where and whom she's living with. The discoveries that follow are some of the most horrifying and shocking sequences in all of film. Doppelgangers, tentacles, spies and one of the most haunting subway scenes in film history are just a few of the thrills provided by Possesion, the density of its narrative is simply unrivaled and it will leave you questioning nearly everything you witnessed. Possession is both a political statement and an expression of personal hell, while many other's have done deep dives into nearly every frame frame of the film if I had to boil down my thoughts into a few sentences as to some of Possession's themes are it'd be the following. Concerning love, sometimes the greatest evils are inside yourself, they are the familiar, they are just as horrifying as the unknown and if not confronted can poison and corrupt those around leading to your own collapse. In a way that can describe the political nature of the film and its commentary on the politics of east vs west, throughout the film you see the motif of green and blue, clashing primarily with Mark and Anna and is projected onto their doppelgangers, the idea of using a failing marriage as an allegory for political tensions may be common in fiction but I would argue few do it better than Possession. Perhaps its most culturally relevant allegory is the role their son Bob plays as he is trapped between the feuding parents constantly passed off and placed into the care of others while tensions between Mark and Anna continue rising and eventually cause their downfall, I need not point to current events to display how powerfully haunting it is to see the sins of previous generations doom the next, but if ever there were a time for such a surrealist horror film to be witnessed it's now.
Since it's inception into cinema Possession has been a controversial film and there are very few films that will leave you as emotionally drained after watching, for the purposes of the reader discovering this film for themselves I have left my review as vague as possible. I want you the reader to discover this film for yourself and make your own conclusions and discoveries, but be forewarned Possession is as bleak as it gets and the ending will stick with you long after you watch. The conversation around this film will hopefully continue to grow stronger as time goes on, it is hard to imagine that there was such a time where a film as powerful as this was critically maligned, butchered by distributors, listed on the infamous "Video Nasties" list in the UK and left to languish for years. But if time has proven one thing it's that the most import thing to have is a legacy and if not for its infamy who knows if we would live in a world where a film as out there as Possession would receive the reappraisal it's gotten and a 4k restoration from Metrograph, while the controversy still lives on and many of the artists involved have lamented on the taxing nature of the film, Possession is proof that the art will always outlive the artist. I had a chance to see Possession in a local theater last year and passed on it, I will regret missing that experience for the rest of my life, if you have the stomach please watch this film, it not only deserves to be considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, but one of the best films ever made.