A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Dr. David Sorfa.
A number of fictional texts have used the historical events at Loudun as their basis. Kawalerowicz's film itself is based on a novella of the same name by the Polish author Jarosław Iwaskiewicz who wrote the story in 1943 during the German occupation of Poland. Iwaskiewicz's story is generally read as an allegory of the struggle against fascism. Of course, Huxley's book on the events [The Devils of Loudun, 1952] is extremely influential, although it is unclear whether Kawalerowicz himself made use of it. Huxley's text was explicitly adapted in John Whiting's play The Devils which was first performed in London in 1961. This play also formed the basis for Krzysztof Penderecki's opera Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun), the 1969 debut of which preceded Ken Russell's infamous 1971 film adaptation The Devils. Clearly each of these iterations reflects their own time of production. The events finds its most sophisticated documentation and analysis in Michel de Certeau's The Possession at Loudun (2000), first published in French in 1970.
The events at Loudun present an exemplary case where interior worlds clash with exterior world views, attuned to the ways in which the repressions within the individual can only speak through the pageantry of possession. It is this expression of what we may call dissent against political and sexual repression that becomes the central image for the various versions of the story.
Kawalerowicz's presentation of the exorcism is so very different from the equivalent scenes in either The Devils, or its American counterpart The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). In both of these later films, the exorcism is presented as terrifying spectacle filled with libidinous energy and, especially in the case of Russell, a sexualised hysteria which recalls very clearly the theatre of hysteria in Charcot's pre-psychoanalytic treatments (see Georges Didi-Huberman's idiosyncratic history Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, 2003). Kawalerowicz however presents the exorcism in a surprisingly restrained manner. This extended and virtually silent sequence takes place almost exactly halfway through the film. The final shot of that sequence has the assembled possessed nuns prostrate themselves on the floor – the image has their white habits forming white cross-shapes in front of the altar and assembled exorcists – and the long shot of their abasement as the is one of the most powerful in the film. It is perhaps not surprising that the next shot we see is of Suryn reaching for his whip and flagellating himself on his bare back. The emotion of the exorcism is explicitly sublimated into the sensuousness of pain. The very first image in the film is of Suryn lying prostrate on the ground. The camera is positioned directly over the figure with his head at the bottom of the screen, presenting us with a living inverted cross and this recalls both the crucifixion of Peter, who insisted on being crucified upside down so as not to imitate and therefore invite comparison to the crucified Christ, but is also a well-known symbol of Satan. This double image sets up very clearly the story that will follow: there will be a martyrdom of extraordinary self-sacrifice and humility, but this martyr will also be tainted by delusion and evil.
In comparison to Russell's version, Kawalerowicz's film empties out most of the political context of the film, placing the action in an isolated convent with only a small inn at its foot. But it is not so much the battle between good and evil that is of central importance (as it is clearly in Russell's film) but rather the difficulty of easily distinguishing between what may or may not be good or evil. This is the central problem that is explored when Father Suryn visits the Rabbi (both parts are played by the same actor, Mieczysław Voit) in which he asks advice on this very question: how can one tell right from wrong, devils from angels? Suryn absolutely believes the possession and De Certeau writes: "Not for a second does he doubt the reality of the possession. How could he, without betraying the cause he received the mission of defending?" (2000, p.203), but the Rabbi humanises this question. He says: "Maybe the trouble is not demons but the absence of angels. Mother Joan's angel has gone and now she's left alone with herself. Maybe it's only human nature."
He also asks the heretical question: "What if Satan created the world? […] For if the Lord created it why is there so much evil in it?" but Suryn cannot countenance this idea and the Rabbi continues to
complicate matters by implying that the demons are a human rather than divine product: "You want to know all about demons? Let them enter your soul" to which Suryn answers, "My demons are my business and my soul is my own."
Dr. David Sorfa’s complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.
(i) The Devils of Loudun -
an 1887 translation by Edmund Goldsmid of the primary account of the episode, originally written in French by Des Niau in 1634
(ii) Jerzy Kawalerowicz interviewed at Kinoeye
(iii) At Film Reference
(iv) An Uncanny Thinker: Michel de Certeau
(v) Polish Cultural Institute