The Modern Maleficarum

I watched some films that were made many years apart, but seemed to have some details in common.

Possession (1981) was made by Andrzej Zulawski, who also made The Third Part Of The Night and On The Silver Globe, amongst others. It all occurs in West Berlin, which is where we start with the return of Mark to see his wife Anna and young son Bob.

At first they are happy to be reunited after his important and rather mysterious business abroad.

His exact job doesn’t get any clearer when we see him being debriefed by a special committee.

Going through papers back at the flat, he finds evidence that Anna has had an affair with a chap called Heinrich while he was away.

After a lot of shouting and drunkenness, the couple are separated and still shouting and breaking things in public.

Heinrich is a bit of a rotter, living with his old mum but putting it about and we find out later he’s partial to a bit of drug-taking. When Mark goes round to challenge him, he comes off the worst, so his job obviously doesn’t involve much physical action.

Taking over the child care means he gets to take Bob to school, and he’s surprised to meet a young teacher who is nearly the double of Anna.

Meanwhile he has employed a detective agency to check up on his wife’s whereabouts, and the old detective fools his way in to her new, dilapidated apartment posing as a building inspector. He makes a horrifying discovery in the bathroom, before Anna stabs him with a broken bottle.

The detective’s colleague & boyfriend tells Mark that he hasn’t reappeared, and goes to look for himself. He also sees something awful in the flat, before Anna kills him.

Mark’s responses to Anna’s crisis grow more extreme, building to the insane conclusion, in which it is implied a major conflict is breaking out in the divided city where we can see soldiers at checkpoints.

So is there a monster, and how does it get about, or is it a shared hallucination or a death vision? We have scenes in spiral staircases with doppelgangers and alternative possibilities scuttling away down corridors, as in The Third Part Of The Night. I think the story is clear enough about what is going on: this is a case of demonic possession. Demons are real to those they are possessing or afflicting: Anna and Mark, but also the two detectives (are they being punished for something as well?) Double-Anna tells Mark when she comes round to the apartment to help with Bob:

ANNA#2: I come from a place where evil is easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh.

Anna recalls her breakdown in the subway when Mark was away. This is the most extreme sequence of the film, even though it isn’t one of the bloodbaths:

As she explains:

ANNA: It’s like there’s two sisters of faith and chance… my faith can exclude chance but my chance can explain faith.. my faith didn’t allow me to wait for chance and chance didn’t give me enough faith. Well, and then I read that private life is a stage-play and that many parts are still smaller than me and yet I still play them – I suffer, I believe, I am…. But at the same time I know there’s a third possibility: cancer, or madness… but cancer or madness control reality, the possibility I’m talking about pierces reality.

There is blood and drugs and car chases and explosions and possibly World War 3 in the final half hour of this film, but I think the sense of it all is in the monologue in the centre, and the comment from the alternative-Anna. She was led in to the path of evil by the libertine Heinrich, who was himself dragged to Hell. Or maybe they both just took bad powder. The spectator who understands it all is the laughing woman cheering Mark as he leaves Anna’s apartment block.

Evil spirits haunting Berlin would also include Fritz Lang’s Testament Of Dr Mabuse, which ended in a suicidal siege in an apartment block. The final incarnation of Mabuse was as a technological entity of a surveillance system existing beyond his death, in The Thousand Eyes Of Dr Mabuse. Perhaps the story of Possession moved on to Possessor (2020).

Possessor starts with something being inserted into the top of a young woman’s head.

This is Holly Bergman, who is in some distress, before being called in to do her job as a hostess at some function in some exclusive venue full of VIPs.

When she gets near to a very important fat man in a suit, she ruthlessly attacks him, with blood gushing all around.

She gives the instruction “Pull me out” but is unable to shoot herself in the mouth with the gun she has brought with her. She is shot anyway by the police arriving on the scene… and then, somewhere, else, a mask is pulled away and assassin Tasya Vos is back in control of her own body, having been remotely operating Bergman through a cranial implant.

Vos works for some nameless organisation, though the foyer of its offices has a giant emblem that could belong to some special part of the CIA.

Odd detail: she is driven away in a vintage car.

In between working on her secret missions, she gets back to see her husband and son, although they have been officially separated for some time.

Hubby is an academic and Tasya is not suited to the role of being the quiet spouse whilst dull departmental gossip is sloshing around the dinner table. Getting back to the office for her next assignment, her boss Girder isn’t keen on her continuing to have these attachments, as she thought the separation was going to be permanent. Girder was a former field agent who can’t work on the machine anymore, that’s why Vos is important as their new star.

GIRDER: I barely recognise myself anymore…

GIRDER: You have a very special nature, one we’ve worked hard together to unlock.

The target for their latest operation is the head of the Zoothroo corporation. Zoothroo is the creation of tech-tyrant John Parse, whose daughter Ava is having a relationship with unsuitable loser Colin Tate. Daddy has insisted Colin has to get a proper job on the ground floor with the other worker drones. The plan devised by our secret agency is for Vos to take over Tate for a few days, in which he will become erratic and angry and then kill John and Ava and then himself, leaving the path clear for Zoothroo to come under the control of someone who will do as they are told and make the corporation’s assets available. Zoothroo’s business is “data mining”, and we see this involves the low-level lifeforms like Tate observing the home lives of thousands of consumers, and gleaning information about their brand choices and lifestyles. It seems that this process is entirely unknown to the hapless civilians who are under observation (sometimes when they’re having sex) although the smart managerial-class girls that Ava hangs out with know how the data is captured.

It’s not clear that Tasya has never been in control in a male body before and she spends some time appreciating it, immediately making an odd impression on Ava.

The experience of having sex with a woman whilst in a man’s body is also disorientating. This is not a problem, as it simply fits the cover story that Colin Tate was a man out of his world and out of his depth and that he is going to freak out.

This comes together when he is required to confront old John Parse at a lavish function.

Nobody sees anything problematic in the official cover story about a man getting above himself and out of his social class and reacting with a violent breakdown. No one in the agency seems to have foreseen Vos having a disassociative episode, but it seems to have been brewing for some time. She gets her job done, but then Colin/Tasya go off-grid and have to be brought back with more bloodbaths.

Other than the title, there is no clear allusion from “Possessor” to “Possession”. But I think there are parallels and correspondences, and it’s hard to believe Brandon Cronenberg was ignorant of the earlier film, since one of his dad’s works has been cited as influential on it.

The most obvious connection is that we have a nuclear family in which one of the parents is some sort of special agent, although now the power relationship is inverted: it’s the female partner who travels abroad on mysterious missions, and comes back to the male partner, who stays at home in an anonymous estate where it’s unclear that anyone knows any of their neighbours. There are many secret agencies gathering information, and falling prey to each other. Zoothroo is taking possession of consumer lives by “data mining” them, whether or not they realise what they are participating in. This is a world of smart, cynical hedonists, but they get caught out and end up destroyed, like Heinrich. One visual connection: in the early stages of her attachment to Tate, Vos seems to vomit up whitish bile whilst tied down in the experience-machine; this has similarities to Anna’s physical breakdown in the subway. Without revealing too much about both films: they both end with the young son making a drastic intervention amongst the extreme adult behaviour.

Possessor turns Possession inside out: instead of watching the mystery of Anna’s transformation from outside, we see it all from the inside, but all the blurring about visions and perceptions, and the ambiguity about whose “will” is dominant: Tasya or Colin, who might well have reacted just the same without remote control. Tasya is the demon that has seized him, but he still has his own volition and can try to understand what is happening. If Tasya is being transformed then it was planned and required by Girder, to strip her down to a pure conscienceless killer. That is what she is when she releases the bloody destructive power we see again and again. This is the inhuman force that the agency has shaped her in to. Whether the process was simply a clearing-away of extraneous attachments is unknown. Possession is a story of humans seeing demons take control of their lives; Possessor is a story about demons taking control of humans.

One thought on “The Modern Maleficarum

  1. It strikes me that “Possessor” also has echoes of “Angel Heart” in the second heart – these scenes in which Tate discovers dead bodies from killings he carried out in fugue states earlier; he also has a fair likeness to young Mickey Rourke. The back-story of that film is that various powerful families owed their position to dealing with the Devil, and they had tried to escape the terms of the deal with an extreme ritual. Maybe Vos’s targets all owed their position to special assistance, and the debt was being called in.

    The question isn’t : “is the creature in Possession real?” but “Is the agency in Possessor real?”, simply a manifestation of evil on Earth. Vos certainly does evil acts and destroys lives. It’s a representation of demons in a form that modern audiences can understand.

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