Possession: A Marriage of the Natural and the Supernatural

This article contains spoilers for the entirety of the film.

Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror film Possession defies easy analysis. The events of the film are straightforward, if odd; it’s certainly more grounded than other surreal horror films like Begotten or Eraserhead. However, while the overarching context is clear—the deterioration and ultimate destruction of a marriage—the ways these surreal events relate to that context are more difficult to parse. Some scenes are easy to interpret: Mark and Anna, the film’s protagonists, discuss their confusion and fear regarding their marital troubles. Their young son Bob’s presence in the midst of these problems exacerbates the issue. Early in the film, it comes to light that Anna has been cheating on Mark with a man named Heinrich for over a year, and as the two quarrel Anna becomes increasingly unhinged. Mark and Anna rarely make eye contact during their conversations. The framing of the shots in the film divides the two characters visually. Even the setting, with the film’s consistent focus on the Berlin Wall, highlights the division between these two individuals. On a practical level, Mark and Anna fight, they make up, they break things, they cry, and they neglect Bob as a result of their constant conflict. But the film’s strange and unexplained aspects, supernatural and otherwise, are what make it so inscrutable, and thus so intriguing. Possession introduces the realistic elements first before gradually injecting these mystifying events into the central conflict in a way that allows the supernatural to reflect and amplify the natural thematically. By the end of the film, the abstract completely overtakes the realistic without betraying the thematic significance that the realistic elements introduce early on.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

A tentacled being that would be at home in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which eventually transforms via sexual intercourse with Anna into an almost perfectly convincing duplicate of Mark with tell-tale bright green eyes, is the film’s most obvious example of the supernatural. Bob’s teacher Helen also drives the film into the realm of the surreal. Isabelle Adjani plays both Anna and Helen, the only difference being the distinct green eyes Helen shares with Anna’s tentacled creature. Anna’s famous miscarriage scene veers into the grotesquely abstract, involving the excretion of unidentifiable fluids from multiple orifices in a thoroughly unnatural manner.

The way characters react to events in the film is also confusing. If Żuławski had played Possession straight, most of the characters would be in a state of utter terror throughout the film, reduced to gibbering in a corner and in serious need of therapy. However, while the film features plenty of gibbering and lunacy, the majority of it is unrelated to fear. Characters experience surprise, anger, and sadness, but with few exceptions—such as when a character encounters the creature—they don’t seem convincingly afraid. This behavior lends a dreamlike element to this abstract work of art, with the actors dancing drunkenly across the screen, raving, hurting, and killing, giving the entire film an intense unpredictability despite its meticulously choreographed aesthetic and turning it into a macabre dance. Ultimately, the strange, stilted acting may turn many viewers off even more than the disturbing imagery, but the film’s wildly kinetic pacing, acting, and cinematography all enhance its visceral themes of love, hate, betrayal, and madness.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

Anna’s Motives

While much of the film is devoted to the deterioration of a marriage, its themes go beyond that in Anna’s philosophical search for higher meaning through her relationships with others. Mark is her first attempt that we are aware of; when she is not satisfied with him, she moves on to Heinrich, an eccentric man of the world who initially intimidates both Mark and the audience. However, Heinrich soon reveals that despite his philosophical musings and his proficiency with martial arts, he doesn’t live up to his ostentatious image. He lives with his mother and pretends to be much more worldly than he is, when in reality his behavior is trite and his taste kitsch. Deeply insecure, he breaks down and goes to Mark to ask drunkenly for help finding Anna, reeling about the apartment hallway raving madly as the camera sways back and forth to keep him in frame. Heinrich eventually meets his ignominious end by Mark’s hand, face-down in a toilet bowl overflowing with his own blood and Mark’s vomit, posed by Mark to look as if he has overdosed. This obviously isn’t Heinrich’s fault, but the indignity of his death serves as a final blow to his perceived confidence and superiority. Anna seems to see this less impressive side of Heinrich even before his death, as she moves on to other methods of achieving the higher meaning she seeks and grievously wounds Heinrich when he attempts to sexually assault her, effectively reversing their roles.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

Heinrich gives a video of Anna to Mark that establishes the foundation of her thoughts and beliefs. Here is her manifesto of sorts, with pauses, stuttering, and repetition omitted for clarity:

Yes, I’m thinking about him. But I recognize the self who has just done something horrible like a sister I’ve casually met on the street. “Hello, sister!” It’s like there’s two sisters of Faith and Chance… My Faith can’t exclude Chance, but my Chance…can’t explain Faith. My Faith didn’t allow me to wait for Chance, and Chance didn’t give me enough Faith… And then I read that private life is a stage, only I’m playing in many parts that are 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, like cancer, or madness, but cancer or madness contort reality. The possibility I’m talking about pierces reality. Oh, I’m unable to say it, maybe. Maybe it’s impossible to say, or maybe I’m too stupid. You’re looking at me as if…to tell me that I need you to fill me up, as if I’m an empty space. Well, I love you too, but what makes me go on is to know he’ll return, and I’ll make him suffer, and…I’ll hurt him, and I’m betraying him, but this brings me small rewards. Well, but yet…I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself. Because I’m the maker of my own evil!… Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil. That’s all it is.

This extended monologue is the single most insightful look into Anna’s character and motivation in the film. When she delivers this speech, she is still in the early stages of her conversion to this way of thinking and is unsure of herself, as evidenced by her pausing, stuttering, and verging on tears throughout. Since this speech is so important to Anna’s character, let’s dissect it a bit. She initially separates the part of herself that does bad things from the rest of herself, formulating the concept of the Sister, likely to avoid guilt for her actions. But she identifies not one but two Sisters, Faith and Chance. Chance is the Sister that allows her to act so cruelly to her husband, while Faith is the Sister that causes her to feel guilty for doing so and to entertain the possibility of repairing her marriage. When she says, “My Faith can’t exclude Chance,” she means that one cannot rely entirely on Faith, because even with positivity and hope, she cannot deny that there is chaos and unfairness in the world. However, her “Chance can’t explain Faith;” the chaos of the universe does not seem to allow for reliance on some kind of order. Her “Faith didn’t allow [her] to wait for Chance,” meaning she relied too much on hope to acknowledge the unpredictability of things, but “Chance didn’t give [her] enough Faith;” that is, the randomness of the universe did not allow her the Faith she wished she could have.

She goes on to acknowledge that she plays a preordained role in the social order, but she wishes to reject these roles, to be something greater, a third possibility that “pierces reality.” Anna acknowledges her need to rely on another person when she says, “I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself,” explaining her relationships with Mark and Heinrich and her future creation of the creature, the literal “[making] of [her] own evil.” This feat truly “pierces reality” and forms a compromise between her needs for both dependence and independence; by creating the creature she can rely on it, but it is entirely of her own making. Finally, Anna describes goodness as “merely some kind of reflection upon evil.” This is a reversal of the common Western perception of evil being a corruption of good. The basic idea is that good is the true, pure reality, and that evil exists only as an extension of good, just as shadows cannot exist without light. Anna, however, flips this concept around, claiming that evil is the true and pure reality and that good exists only as an extension of evil. This seems to be the crux of her argument with which she justifies her deeds.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

In a flashback that likely occurs not long after the video was filmed, we see Anna whimpering at a church before a crucifix immediately prior to her memorable subway miscarriage scene, which she describes to Mark as a miscarriage of “Sister Faith,” with only “Sister Chance” now remaining. This moment marks the realization of the concepts she outlined in the video and her irreversible dedication to her new philosophy, with all of its potential consequences. At this point, Anna has rejected God as a source of meaning, and she turns to other methods, her new lack of faith apparently allowing her the moral freedom to carry out her gruesome work. In her secret apartment located mere feet from the Berlin Wall, Anna cultivates a grotesque, tentacled, semi-humanoid creature, killing those who enter the apartment and discover its existence. The exact nature of this abomination is unclear for most of the film, but we ultimately learn that, by engaging in sexual intercourse with it, Anna is turning it into a new “partner” of sorts.

The irony of this is that when completed, the creature is identical to Mark, both played by Sam Neill, except for its striking green eyes and its calm, inhuman demeanor. Anna tells Mark earlier in the film that since she has been with Heinrich, Mark disgusts her. But if Mark and even the supposedly superior Heinrich disgust Anna, why is her ideal mate another Mark? It is impossible to answer this question with any certainty. Perhaps it is a commentary on Anna’s longing for what she has lost, her regret for ending her marriage and burning that bridge. Perhaps this new Mark represents the elements she admired in Mark, without the elements she detested. This certainly seems to be the case in the relationship between Mark and Helen; Helen is Anna’s doppelgänger just as the creature becomes Mark’s doppelgänger. While Anna is unpredictable, violent, and irrational, Helen is gentle and kind. Perhaps Mark’s double is meant to be a similar being. The exact purpose of the doppelgänger’s appearance is mystifying, and perhaps the ambiguity of the situation is for the best. There are many reasonable theories, but the lack of a definitive answer adds to the disturbing nature of Anna’s madness.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

Sister Faith and Sister Chance

The subject of Mark’s double leads us to the matter of Helen’s backstory. It is certainly no coincidence that she is identical to Anna, or that she has large, bright green eyes just like Mark’s doppelgänger. The implication seems to be that she was created in a similar way. There is one particularly telling interaction between Mark and Helen while Helen is staying at Mark’s apartment:

MARK: I’m at war against women. They have no foresight. There’s nothing about them that is stable, there’s nothing to trust. They’re dangerous.

HELEN: There is nothing in common among women except menstruation… I come from a place where evil seems easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh. [Helen pauses to wipe blood off of the electric knife Anna and Mark had both previously used to harm themselves.] It becomes people, so you know exactly the danger of being deformed by it. Which doesn’t mean I admire your world. But I find pathetic these stories of women contaminating the universe.

MARK: I’m one of the contaminated.

HELEN: Because you never feel free, do you? It’s so sad that for you freedom seems to mean evil. And what about lack of freedom?

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

While Helen’s mention of coming from a different “place” initially seems like an odd yet innocent metaphor, the context the film provides later makes it much more suspect. Helen’s statements make her seem alien, and the concept of “seeing evil in the flesh” may well foreshadow Mark’s doppelgänger, with its almost robotic and uncaring behavior. While Anna remains at least somewhat conflicted until the end, the doppelgänger is what one might consider truly evil—and perhaps that is what Anna admires in him, that he has what she cannot attain despite the atrocities she commits. Likewise, Mark admires Helen’s compassion, but he himself is incapable of being an entirely good person; we see this most clearly when he murders Heinrich and when he creates a violent, explosive distraction for Anna without regard for the safety of bystanders, police, or even himself. Given the striking similarities between Helen and Mark’s double, it makes perfect sense that they are from the same “place” that Helen describes, despite having essentially opposite personalities.

Helen behaves in a calm, kind manner throughout the entirety of the film, never behaving cruelly or displaying the instability that is characteristic of Anna. She displays a confident feminist viewpoint in response to Mark’s sexist remarks and outlines her position in a firm but reasonable tone. The film shows us that despite the very clear similarities between the two doppelgängers, there are major differences between them as well. This brings us to what I find to be the most likely explanation for Helen’s existence: she is a manifestation of what Anna calls Sister Faith, whom Anna miscarried in the subway prior to the events of the film. Helen is the humanity and compassion that has left Anna, while Anna retains the elements of Sister Chance. If this is the case, then it is no wonder Mark is so drawn to Helen, even besides her physical resemblance to Anna. She is everything that Mark misses in Anna, given flesh.

The two Sisters seem to be two aspects of Anna’s personality—maybe not as simple as good and bad, but a similar concept—that maintain a balance and make Anna human. When she miscarries Sister Faith, she loses her faith, her compassion, her love, her hope. Following the miscarriage, all that remains within Anna is Sister Chance. So what, then, does Sister Chance signify? One would assume Sister Chance represents that which Sister Faith does not: chaos, cruelty (or at least a lack of compassion), and an intense independence, which Anna demonstrates by creating her creature and by rejecting Mark, Heinrich, and God himself. These features of Sister Chance aren’t inherently bad, but without Sister Faith present to provide a balance between the two, the influence of the “Chance” side of Anna’s personality proves disastrous and destructive to herself and to those around her. Chance is the nihilistic surrender to absurdity, and its overtaking of Anna coincides with her descent into madness.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

Storytelling Through Horror

The film’s presentation of its horror elements is a major reason it works so well. Possession contains multiple sources of horror, each adding a facet to the whole and helping the film make its statement. The film contains blatant horror elements like blood, violence, and monsters, but it uses these to convey a deeper sense of horror and unease than one finds in a superficial splatterfest. The marital troubles between the two primary characters touch on a very real fear for many people. The acting and the violence involved are exaggerated to an absurd degree, but such situations can and all too often do turn violent in the real world, lending a troubling undercurrent of realism to the mostly surreal film. Thus the unease the viewer feels when watching Possession stems not only from the grotesque practical effects, but also from its strange connection to reality.

Similarly, Anna’s existential crisis serves as another source of horror, one rooted in real human issues presented partly through the surreal and the supernatural. Anna’s loss of faith and her yearning for a higher state of being drive her to commit unspeakable acts, and while creating a creature through whatever alchemical forces Anna uses is only possible via movie magic, her basic desires and disregard for human life touch on a troubling real world truth. Anna moves from an established faith to nihilism, then to the creation of her own faith, a new religion that benefits only her, for which she is willing to kill. Anna resolves her existential crisis in the worst way possible, and Żuławski conveys this with visceral, surrealist imagery that penetrates the viewer’s consciousness in a different way than a realistic drama would. This unusual presentation moves the viewer in ways a non-horror film couldn’t.

The film ends on a seemingly hopeless note: Mark’s doppelgänger—the ultimate amoral product of Anna’s work—stands at the doorstep of Sister Faith, who is compassionate and unprepared for such an encounter. Mark and Anna’s complex characters are gone; the not-fully-human clones remain, signifying a divide that is impossible to mend, causing an apparent apocalypse at this literal meeting of Faith and Chance. Bob instinctively senses the danger and repeatedly tells Helen not to open the door as he runs upstairs and drowns himself in the bathtub, using death as a shield from the cruelty of the world manifested in Mark’s doppelgänger. Helen obeys Bob’s plea and stands looking confused and frightened as the new, alien Mark gropes at the door and the sounds of air raid sirens and explosions reach a crescendo, bringing the film to a close with a final shot of Helen’s wide-eyed face staring into the camera.

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Possession. Dir. Andrzej Zulawski.

The grim ending brings the film’s central themes to their thematically logical, yet practically illogical, conclusion. The film begins with a dying marriage; as the film progresses, this initially straightforward conflict grows increasingly abstract while never losing its thematic significance. The ending sees Possession at its most extremely surreal, with the two characters literally distilled to single sets of personality traits confronting one another as opposites, or perhaps as two halves of a potential whole. This split, like the splitting of an atom, causes the city, perhaps the world, to be violently destroyed—just like Mark and Anna’s marriage.

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