Poland’s been in the grips of an identity crisis for the lion’s share of the decade, and the results are most easily visible to a foreign spectator through the country’s film exports. Writhing against the victimhood doxa propped up in the national consciousness in the years following World War II, more recent generations have been prying open the country’s shut eyelids and examining the role Poland played — coerced at best and all too willful at worst — in the decimation of their Jewish population. Films like Pawlikowski’s lauded Ida and Pasikowski’s thriller Aftermath galvanized national dialogue and earned the barbs of revisionist politicians and masses in equal turn (Pasikowski and his crew received multiple death threats after the film’s release). The investigation into the country’s soul shows no interest in abating, and Marin Wrona’s Demon continues the conversation with as much polish and power as its predecessors.
Billed as a horror film, Demon revolves around English outsider Peter (Itay Tiran) traveling to Poland to marry his fiancee Zaweta (Agnieszka Zulewska) at the neglected country house gifted to them by her family who receive Peter with thinly-veiled xenophobia. On the eve of the wedding while Peter’s clearing debris and taking stock of the construction work to revive the property, he literally stumbles into a hole of unearthed human remains and wakes up on his wedding day to find himself possessed by a dybbuk, a type of malevolent ghost from Jewish folklore which binds itself to a living soul in order to fulfill its own ends. Contained in this hour and 34 minutes is a story which is more elegantly staged parable than traditional horror film, but the feeling one is left with after finishing Demon is far more chilling than the bulk of scare schlock that’s come out in the past few years.
Much like The Witch and The Babadook, both of which have been popularly compared to Demon, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the world it creates and inhabits. Shot on location in a small town called Bochnia near Krakow, Demon exists in an environment equal parts mysterious and tense that invites an audience while holding them in an anxious grip. From the opening scenes of wispy fog blanketing the tiny fatigued town with the notes of a bassoon meandering in the air and a bulldozer coursing through dirt roads, the themes of active revisionism and willful obfuscation the film addresses are present from the first seconds to the last. The unease permeates the film and sidles in the rafters, but it’s far from content to only manifest in decaying buildings.
In keeping with the traditional construction of a tableau (the movie was based on a Polish play named The Clinging) the characters here represent the archetypes of Polish society, but rather than let them wallow in dramatic tropes, each brings an odd bent of absurdist humor that sets Demon apart from other morality plays. Zaneta’s father Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) is introduced with an expected xenophobic distance that evolves into a ludicrous double duty role of covering up the possession of his new son-in-law while shuffling around party guests in the midst of a storm and keeping them fueled with vodka. The particularly entertaining Cezary Kosiński’s role as a mild, polite priest who shrivels at the prospect of exorcising a demon and continually asks anyone within earshot for a ride back to the priory provides digestible commentary on the church’s willingness to probe history. The most relatable of the ancillary characters, the doctor (Adam Woronowicz), shuffles through scenes espousing a teetotaling life while taking secret swills when no one’s looking as he tries to reconcile his self-professed atheism with the spectacle he’s unwittingly taken part in.
The most incisive of the characters involved in the possession is the town professor and lone Jewish presence aside from the titular ghost, played by Włodzimierz Press. Popular Polish thought on Jewish presence is made cringe-inducingly clear when he’s all but heckled off the stage by the drunk crowd during his toast in which he timidly talks about history and memory. Later on in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, while the professor speaking to Hana, the dybbuk, it’s revealed that she was a beautiful young woman he knew in his youth who disappeared without a trace. While they sing an old folk song in Yiddish and talk about the town, it’s revealed that Hana isn’t even aware she’s dead, as she demands the husband and the life that was taken from her 70 years ago. In a film that plays gracefully between levity and the abject darkness, this scene offers an unveiled glimpse into the core of a subject matter haunting an entire nation.
Sadly, shortly before the Polish premiere of the film the director, Marcin Wrona, was found in a hotel room after hanging himself. While cleanly blending the absurdly comic and the harrowingly somber, Demon ends with no resolve or feeling of conclusion — just a static, beautiful, haunting shot of fog rolling over a river. The parallel of Poland carrying its own dybbuk, its participation in the Jewish extermination, would be facile if it weren’t so real and gripping. The crushing reality already claimed a director, and it will be years before we know if Poland will be able to address and exorcise the guilt festering at its core.