In the first week of 2023, Shudder surprised horror fans by adding Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski’s cult classic, Possession. Starring a young Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, Possession’s story of a marriage dissolving set against the backdrop of Cold War West Berlin was met with an initially lukewarm critical response and backlash. It quickly found its way onto the U.K.’s infamous Video Nasties list. Unlike some movies that made the list, Possession’s disturbing content warranted at least the idea of the list. Over time, similar to most classic movies, Zulawski’s film has grown in reputation while somehow remaining obscure. Today, some critics consider Possession to be the ‘best horror movie you’ve never seen’.
Upon returning to West Berlin, Mark learns his wife, Anna, no longer wants to stay in their marriage. When he persists, Anna confirms his worst fears – she has found someone new and leaves him with their young son. As the couple struggles to re-define their lives, they slowly descend into a nightmarish world that defies reality.
Possession a Disturbing Nightmare of a Thriller That Defies Description
No, Possession isn’t a story about demonic possession. Writer and director Andrzej Żuławski isn’t interested in traditional narrative and filmmaking, which places Possession firmly in the category of surrealist horror. Or does it. This is a film that defies easy categorization mixing bits of other genres in no quantifiable manner. For instance, Mark is a spy returning to West Berlin, a detail that largely doesn’t impact the film, until almost randomly resurfacing at the climax. Much of the movie ebbs and flows like a strange nightmare. How much of the monstrous imagery is intended to be ‘real’ within its story is ambiguous. These images aren’t in service to the narrative – they’re fluid like dreams and meant to build larger ideas and themes.
But Zulawski’s thriller increasingly trades in the same experimental body horror that defined David Lynch’s Eraserhead and much of David Cronenberg’s work.
While some movies on the Video Nasties List were underwhelming in terms of gore, selected largely for political reasons, Possession is a truly disturbing movie. In all likelihood, one scene involving a gruesome miscarriage in a subway earned Żuławski’s spot on the U.K. list. But Zulawski’s thriller increasingly trades in the same experimental body horror that defined David Lynch’s Eraserhead and much of David Cronenberg’s work. There’s some yucky, gross-out moments, bizarre creature effects juxtaposed with impressively stark cinematography. Aside from its bizarre hallucinatory horror, Possession notably stands out for just how technically well filmed it is as a whole. One scene engulfs Sam Neill’s ‘Mark’ in a vast room while he begs for reconciliation, the camera slowly panning closer. It’s a moment that catpures both the character’s isolation and the claustrophobic sense of loss.
Zulawski Eschews Coherent Storytelling for a Fluid Nightmare
For the shortest amount of time, Possession teases a traditional – and familiar – story of a marriage dissolving on the screen. Yet Zulawski and co-writer Frederic Tuten have no interest in telling a conventional tale. Instead, the story unravels into vaguely connected and inexplicable images of tentacled monsters and self-generated doppelgängers all set within the political backdrop of Cold War Berlin. Undoubtedly, Zulawski intends to use the dissolution of Mark and Anna’s marriage as something of a metaphor for the splitting of East and West Berlin, a similar theme explored by Luca Guadagnino’s (Bones and All) Suspiria. Perhaps the doppelgängers of the husband and wife say something about the toxic expectations we place on our partners that eat away at a marriage. There’s a vagueness to the storytelling appropriate to the thriller’s surrealist style.
Instead, the story unravels into vaguely connected and inexplicable images of tentacled monsters and self-generated doppelgängers all set within the political backdrop of Cold War Berlin.
Similar to its story and visual, the performances don’t conform to any traditional expectations. Almost immediately from its first scene, Possession presents characters and performances that are grandiose, challenging, and often bizarre. The relationship between Sam Neill’s (Event Horizon) ‘Mark’ and Isabelle Adjani’s (Nosferatu the Vampyre) is volatile and both actors deliver volatile, histrionic characterizations. Neill and Adjani are as wildly unhinged as everything else in the movie. Only Heinz Bennett, as the eccentric ‘other man’ Heinrich, comes close to the off-the-wall Neill and Adjani. Of course, it bares mentioning that no one in this film behaves remotely like a human being, let alone normal one. And Tuten and Żuławski’s dialogue is often nonsensical, adding little to what’s happening in front of your eyes.
Possession a Disturbing Surrealist Horror That Deserves to be Seen
Beware casual horror fans – Possession earns every bit of the ‘cult’ in its cult status reputation. Thematically complex and narratively opaque, Żuławski crafts a surrealist nightmare that is more of an experience than engaging with a traditional story. On one hand, it’s the kind of movie made for critics, arthouse fans, or film studies majors. Yet there’s no denying the visceral nature of the onscreen imagery that’s more disturbing than much of what you’d find in contemporary horror. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Possession is nightmarish movie that sears itself onto your brain – watching it is unforgettable. Certainly, it’s hard to understand how Żuławski’s extreme oddity has remained so obscure.