“There is nothing to fear except God. Whatever that means to you.”
It’s the early 1980s in West Berlin and graffiti everywhere screams for the wall to be taken down. Mysterious figures linger on the other side not quite hidden from view, watching with binoculars and always seemingly looking directly in our direction. Tensions are high, psychosis runs rampant, and people begin to start disappearing. There’s a palpable sense of paranoia setting in that cannot be combatted except by our personal allowance to embrace an unpredictably chaotic side of ourselves. Humanity and decency are being replaced by cool, calculating menace and it cannot be controlled. The world is a damaged place, it’s value system skewed towards selfish desire and carnal pleasure against a dystopian existence. A transformation is occurring; who we are as a species is being destroyed.
You can’t help but be unsettled by this environment created by writer/director Andrzej Zulawski in his seminal, unclassifiable suspense horror Possession because it all feels so relevant and sinister against the backdrop of such a beacon of oppression and segregation as the Berlin Wall. It makes it so that we know there are deeper meanings involved than a psychotic break on behalf of the troubled Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill)—a once loving couple who have drifted apart due to too many long months separated courtesy of his highly lucrative and secretive job. There must be a metaphor at play as their impending divorce and wildly destructive psychological fracturing can’t simply be taken at face value. As yet I’m still unable to quite figure it out.
It’s therefore easy for me to dismiss the cult classic as a tonally out-there escapade of body horror and over-the-top hysterics. Adjani won Best Actress at Cannes and the César Awards, but watching it thirty plus years later has me scratching my head as to how. This performance is so unhinged that it spills into comedy when not offset by slithering tentacles or thickly viscous ooze pouring from her orifices. Her screams are matched by Neill’s shouts and unsettlingly wry grins of seeming enjoyment in her complete and utter breakdown. He has his own moments of insanity too, though, whether it’s a three-week period of withdrawal shakes in isolation due to the absence of her love or a Godzilla-esque rampage through an upscale restaurant in broad daylight.
Soon we have an Anna doppelgänger in her son Bob’s (Michael Hogben) elementary teacher Helen (also played by Adjani); Anna’s broken-legged best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen) whom Mark loathes yet finds himself romantically inclined towards (maybe?); a sarcastically sophisticated figure named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) who’s definitely a few cards shy of a full deck engaged in a yearlong affair with Anna to precipitate the divorce; and the international rogue’s gallery that is Mark’s former employers skulking around in hopes of enlisting him to their whims once more. I’m pretty certain Helen makes mention of not being human at one point, but it’s the throwaway line about pink socks that ultimately proves to possibly hold the key to everything. Decades could be spent trying to decipher it.
But where do we start? For me the answer is nowhere because I’m not sure I can move past the somewhat excruciating repetition of Mark and Anna’s domestic squabbles. He tries on a soothing voice and she becomes frozen in her mind full of anxieties. He hopes to cajole answers and she devolves into a feral creature burning everything in her path before finally storming out in a strange calm arriving out of left field. Possession is full of these random tonal shifts either through jarring jump-cuts in time or unexplained directorial cues off-screen telling the actors to instantly stop whatever they’re doing and instead portray the exact opposite emotion. Watching it can be exhausting as a result because a day fades away and it all happens again.
Things do get extremely engrossing once a detective follows Anna to wherever it is she is staying—both Mark and Heinrich are now cuckolded—but it may be too late. Intentional laughter replaces unintentional as Anna manically puts clothes in the refrigerator and food in the bedroom and seemingly unimportant espionage (Mark’s resignation to a firm that fandom speculation says employed him as a spy despite my believing there’s no credence to it either verbally or physically considering he’s a bit of a pushover who’s fearful of Heinrich) is shifted to undeniable machinations of importance once we acknowledge something unexplained is occurring that Mark’s former bosses act as though keenly aware. So overwhelmed by that point, I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening.
If nothing else this realization proves there’s much more at play in Zulawski’s film than surface theatrics. Possession is a dense work of psychological tumult that amplifies into a monster movie hiding commentary on the dissolution of strength for fear until our souls are replaced by darkly evil, remorseless villainy. And perhaps Bob is the central force causing everything. Our stand-in for the future—something that should represent hope—is gradually being surrounded by entities unfamiliar to him despite their identical appearances to those he loves. There’s corruption at play as the unavoidable reality of pain threatens to consume him so the world can officially be reborn in its cruelty. Death is our only escape and death only makes these creatures more powerful.
But there’s also major plot threads dealing with love and God and the absence of both turning good people bad so murder becomes a delicious craving rather than a scary, unfathomable proposition. Bodies and souls separate, emotions change, and conspiracy rises to the surface where only marital strife existed. Bonds of romance are broken so that connections of utilitarian and parasitic nature can be born in their place. Life within this film is an experiment full of unexplained horrors that mankind appears to be losing. Green eyes and pink socks infiltrate our view as the shift expands towards those we’d believe would be impermeable to defeat. Peace is possible, but like in so many sci-fi visions it’s only achievable once human beings are extinct.