Possession (1981)

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Possession is a masterpiece. It’s a cold, incomprehensible film that confidently unleashes cinematic techniques like deadly weapons. Filmed in Berlin in 1980, Possession occupies harsh, uncaring architectural spaces, but populates them with passionate characters that remain in constant, violently fluid motion. The camera moves with them, rarely allowing the audience to settle as it chases its tormented subjects down sparse rooms and hallways like a slasher movie serial killer. In one shot the central couple undulates back & forth in front of a blank white wall, constantly swirling around each other during a bitter argument, but seemingly going nowhere as if trapped in a void. The film feels like a visual manifestation of madness, inertia, and heartbreak all rolled into one dizzying package. It captures the cold horror of divorce & separation and transforms it into an unknowable evil. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite some time, but finds its horror in ambiguity instead of a tangible, comprehensible threat.

That’s not to say there aren’t the typical on-screen genre-signifiers of horror in the film. There is gore. Characters bleed at the impact of sharp instruments and are confronted by humanoid demons, but these aspects serve more as exclamation points than the main attraction. With a title like Possession and the heavy synths in the opening theme, it’d be reasonable to expect a straight-forward 80s zombie or vampire flick, but the film refuses to be pinned down so easily. If Possession were to be understood as a creature feature, the monster in question would be the coldness of romantic separation. When a character supposes early in the film, “Maybe all couples go through this” it seems like a reasonable claim. The bitterness of divorce, loneliness, and adulterous desire then devolve into a supernatural ugliness. The main couple frantically move about Berlin as if drunk or suffering seizures, downright possessed by their romantic misery. Their own motion & inner turmoil is more of a violent threat than the film’s most menacing blood-soaked monsters or electric carving knives.

For a taste of the film’s fascinatingly bizarre sense of movement, the Crystal Castles music video for “Plague” samples key scenes and repurposes them as demonic, Kate Bush-style interpretive dance. It could possibly spoil some striking images, but the film’s plot is mostly spoiler-proof in its intentional obfuscation. The Berlin setting, the sound design in the final scene and the protagonist’s confession that he’s “at war against women” all allude to the possibility of a war allegory subtext, but it’s not explicit or concrete. If anything, characters are at war with themselves and the uncaring nature of the world they occupy. When Sam Neill’s protagonist confesses “For me, God is a disease” it’s easy to empathize. Whoever created the cruel, heartless world of Possession and brought life into it must have at least been as callous as a disease. With its brutal momentum & inevitable bloodshed it’s a terrifying hellscape, especially if it’s something that “all couples go through.”

-Brandon Ledet

14 thoughts on “Possession (1981)

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