Possession (1981)

Possession first published by LWLies.

If Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was to prefigure Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire by six years in its use of a divided Berlin to symbolize all manner of dualities, then it would also find itself occupying a strange borderland between the arthouse and the grindhouse.

On the one hand it is an intense drama of marital collapse that was nominated for the Palme d’Or (taken that year by another Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron) and won Best Actress awards for its lead Isabelle Adjani at Cannes, the Césars and Fantasporto. On the other hand, it is a grotesque creature feature that earned the more dubious honour of a place on the Video Nasties list compiled in the UK under the 1984 Video Recordings Act (although the film was never prosecuted, and was finally released uncut in the UK in 1999). This split in the film’s reception between respect and revulsion perfectly suits a story in which every character is being torn apart by their riven identities.

As Possession begins, Mark (Sam Neill) has just returned to his home by the Wall in West Berlin, following the completion of an Eastern mission liaising with another double agent – even if his young son Bob (Michael Hogben) believes that Daddy has instead been meeting polar bears in the cold far away. Mark’s wife Anna (Adjani in  very intense form) is none too pleased to see her husband back, for she too has been leading a double life, two-timing Mark not just with the odious hippie Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), but more recently with a mystery lover somewhere in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.

Increasingly disturbed by the unhinged nature of Anna’s infatuation, Mark hires a pair of detectives (with their own skeletons in the closet) to find out the address of his wife’s secret love nest. Meanwhile, Mark fills the space of Anna’s absence with Bob’s schoolteacher Helen (also played by Adjani), who is everything Anna is not. Mark, though, is not the only one creating an idealized version of his love – for, holed up in her Kreuzberg apartment, Anna is giving monstrous expression to her own conflicted desires as wife, mother and lover.

As well as lending the film’s imagery a chilly beauty, Bruno Nuytten’s wide-angle cinematography always keeps the characters at a distance even in their most intimate breakdowns, and sets them conspicuously within the context of the Iron Curtain. In this overdetermined environment, we witness not only the disintegration of a relationship, but also the dissolution of all normal barriers between the political and the personal, the physical and the psychological, the human and the bestial, the domestic and the apocalyptic.

The emergence of an eroticised tentacular monster from all this angst and alienation seems entirely natural, and its inchoate, shifting shape reflects the hybridised form of a film that is part family tragedy, part political thriller, and part bloody body horror. It might at times recall Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and David Cronenberg’s The Brood, and anticipate Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, but really Possession is like nothing else – an uncompromising and idiosyncratic vision of the divisions that exist around, between and within us all.

© Anton Bitel