The year 1981 marked two decades since the Berlin Wall was erected around the West of the city. Both sections of the city were suspended in animation, with another decade left to go until the full dissolution of the Soviet Union. For European nations no longer involved in direct conflict, this era was recognised as one far removed from the barrage and fire of World War II. As time has passed, it’s a conflict that’s become more closely attributed to the bland, beige espionage aesthetic of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – rooms coloured in mustard and brown, clouded with tobacco smoke and the tedium of clandestine admin. No bombs fell, yet for the residents of a fractured city, the silent horror of the situation seeped into quotidian experience through constant psychological intrusion. This was the landscape chosen by the Polish director Andrzej Żuławski as the backdrop to his fourth film, Possession (1981).
Today, Possession’s cult film status is often revered by those who praise its artistic profundity while equally mocked by those who indulge in performative bafflement for Letterboxd likes. Written during and as a direct result of Żuławski’s real-life divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek, it begins when international spy Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home from a secret mission to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) asking him for a divorce. What starts as an espionage thriller-cum-divorce drama swiftly dissolves into psychological and metaphysical surrealism. Forty years of history now separates this vividly expressionist film from the present day, and considering the modern British predicament of feeling trapped inside Normal Island at the behest of a corrupt and erratic government, it feels optimal to examine how the film’s geographical setting lends itself to emotional deterioration.
Possession is set predominantly in two locations – Bernauer Strasse, where Anna and Mark live together and the border wall is always visible from their window, and an abandoned townhouse in the impoverished Kreuzberg district. Bernauer Strasse was known for its particularly fraught division by the Wall. It was here where Soviet soldier Conrad Schumann was photographed leaping over the barrier to flee the East when the Wall first went up in 1961. Numerous residents from the row of houses in the Eastern city were shot and killed attempting to escape to the West. One day the street was a community, the next it was divided in two, and the residents were powerless to remedy this. Likewise, one day Anna and Mark were married, and then before the film has even begun Anna has told her husband she wants a divorce. Like the residents of Berlin, the couple can’t seem to verbalise why they are seperating. When lying in bed together Mark tries to reason that what’s happening is natural, and Anna tosses her head wildly, eyes panicked and disbelieving. She wants this, yet it distresses her to go through with it.
By the advent of the 1980s, the Wall had become more of a vaguely intrusive presence, especially in the lives of West Berliners. Żuławski reflects this by punctuating the story with monotonously similar close-ups of the Wall by the couple’s apartment – the same section every time, always with two Soviet guards on lookout, always with a pair of binoculars to hand, physically present but not actively menacing. Nevertheless, even for those living in what was seen as the ‘free’ side of the city, hindsight has shed light on how the encroaching claustrophobia seeped into the lives of ordinary people. Writer and former West Berlin resident Paul Hockenos described in a 2018 piece for German outlet The Local how one mutual friend would on most evenings “open the door to her cold, dark, empty Schöneberg courtyard apartment and burst into tears,” or how another acquaintance had taken to hiding escape money under her bed, should disaster strike and the Soviet tanks rumble in to destroy the enclaved semi-city. These are the minutiae of a city gripped in silent psychological stress.
Żuławski’s interpretation of West Berlin unbinds Anna and Mark from a sociological pressure to subdue their emotional responses, and Isabelle Adjani physically expresses Anna’s torment with cataclysmic fervour. During an argument scene with Mark she indiscriminately empties cupboards, seemingly attempting chores, and hypnotically wipes at some unseen filth on her hands. Her actions are indecipherable, yet almost normal, and once again the threat is invisible yet starkly present in her actions. In the drudgery of real life, a quiet weep in an empty courtyard is enough to keep existential panic at bay. In an underpass Anna unleashes a torrent of irrepressible sound and movement, a shamanic performance ending with her earth-shattering screams as unidentifiable fluids seep from her shaking, slumped form. It is resolutely hellish, and unapologetically forceful – but there is power in that. If an environment feels apocalyptic, allowing the self to respond emotionally without restraint can be the purest form of catharsis, and subverts the idea that such an occurrence is normal.
While Possession is an unfathomable film which veers between supernatural horror and marital melodrama, it remains above all a Cold War film, a story of people attempting and failing to rationalise an irrational situation. Yet there is power in overtly bizarre behaviour. In an environment where the powers that be are doing everything to subdue the population by normalising authoritarianism, to subvert it with erratic physicality is an act of resistance. Perhaps there is even cause to see premonition of Berlin’s reunification in the film’s final scenes, as Anna and Mark cling together, reconciling in their death at the hands of others. Bloodied and beaten, but together as they should be.