In Poland, there is nothing out of the ordinary about feeling surrounded by ghosts.
Marcin Wrona’s film Demon makes that feeling a little more literal than we might be comfortable with, playing on our anxieties about death, guilt, and past mistakes. In this way, it’s a lot like other horror films. Unlike most horror films, it’s personal reckoning unfolds alongside that of an entire country. Demon blurs the line between individual guilt and national guilt—just as that line continues to be blurred in contemporary Poland. As one of Wrona’s characters remarks, “This whole country is built on corpses.”
Unlike Demon, Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent Oscar-winning film that explored similar issues, Demon takes place in contemporary Poland, starring characters who probably do not remember communism and were not alive during the Nazi occupation. The main character, Piotr (Itay Tiran), is himself only distantly connected to Poland. He is a member of the Polish diaspora in London and speaks Polish haltingly in the way many diaspora speakers do. The bride, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) chooses to have the wedding in her hometown, an isolated island village connected to the mainland only by an irregular ferry.
Piotr arrives on this little boat with only his Range Rover as company, a recognizable symbol of the Eastern European nouveau riche. Piotr’s lack of connection to the town and the town’s isolation from the rest of Poland draw upon a familiar horror film trope of a middle-of-nowhere town only loosely connected to reality. And yet the town’s isolation is itself a product of very concrete causes: the Nazis destroyed the only bridge on or off the island during WWII.
The plot thickens when Piotr begins digging in the backyard to lay the foundation for a swimming pool and discovers bones. The discovery of the bones leads Piotr to hallucinate a ghost bride named Hana (Maria Debska) who we see drawing Piotr into her grave while she emerges alive. The next morning we are not sure if this was a dream or not—Piotr wakes up sleeping in his car—but the bones are gone.
Demon is based loosely on the play The Dybbuk written by S. Ansky, pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport. First performed in Yiddish in Warsaw in 1920, and later performed in Hebrew in Moscow in 1922, the play was originally written in Russian. A dybbuk in Eastern European Jewish folk mythology is the spirit of a dead person that clings to the body of a live person to accomplish some unfinished business. Ansky’s play was later made into a Yiddish film in 1937 also called The Dybbuk.
Ansky’s play took shape in a specific historical context, a cultural milieu for Jews in the part of Poland then governed by the Russian Empire.The film reflects Poland’s role in the 1930s as a center for Yiddish culture until the anti-Semitism of the interwar Polish republic made it impossible for this culture to flourish. Both of these worlds are gone—not just because decades have passed but because a combination of Nazi occupation, violent Polish radical nationalism, and Soviet empire have murdered the residents of that world and suppressed its memory. Demon engages with Ansky’s play at two levels, not only as inspiration for its plot and as a reminder of a history some wished forgotten. Wrona surely took care to place the film’s dramatic climax in a barn, a symbol that took on new significance after Jan Gross’ chilling revelations of the collaboration of local Poles in the Nazi destruction of the Jews.
The film also draws on symbols from Polish and Jewish culture, both old and new. Zaneta’s wedding to Piotr is presented as an authentic Polish wedding. Though Zaneta seems to have spent time away from her home village she insisted that the wedding be held there and remains firmly committed to Polish traditions, from folk songs to a series of toasts that render the entire wedding party extremely drunk. However, the wedding proceeds in many ways associated with Jewish tradition, often unplanned or unacknowledged by Zaneta and Piotr.
When Zaneta tosses a glass behind her for good luck, Piotr stomps on it in the Jewish fashion, puzzling his new bridge. After the ceremony, they sneak to a barn to consummate the wedding before entering the reception, reminiscent of the tradition among Ashkenazi Jews in which the bride and groom are left alone for ten minutes before greeting their guests. (In olden days this was to consummate the marriage. Now it’s usually just to enjoy being married before having to make a grand entrance to a reception.)
Yet this is a horror film, so the wedding does not proceed as planned. Piotr’s encounter with the ghost bride leads the new-formed family to a reckoning with their land and their family history, with the help of an alarmed village priest and a Jewish guest.
While some of the references may be a bit heavy handed (a toast by a Jewish wedding guest about the importance of memory is a little much), the film’s unanswered questions ensure that Demon navigates beautifully the delicate balance between horror film and historical commentary. The film unfolds like a long, beautiful Twilight Zone episode with multiple voices serving as the Rod Serling explaining to us what we should learn from the events we’ve witnessed. It is no coincidence of course that one of the first representations of the Holocaust in American popular culture was on the Twilight Zone: Sometimes the horrors of history are best told in a universe that seems far from reality.