How do you portray the haunting of a society in denial? Director Marcin Wrona’s compelling drama Demon — a Polish-Israeli coproduction — offers one answer.
Peter (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) is an intense yet amiable London structural engineer who speaks passable Polish and has a facility for operating earth-moving equipment. He’s in Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), the charming and vivacious daughter of Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski). Zygmunt is the burly, overbearing owner of an enormous open-pit mine (the mine appears as a worthy protagonist in a late scene) and of a remote, empty, and leaking family mansion on whose grounds — in an adjacent barn — the wedding will take place.
The mansion isn’t haunted, though in early scenes it appears to be, lending Demon some of the feel of a horror film, which it is not.
Still, not all is well. While operating a “digger” near the house, Peter uncovers something — or doesn’t — and sees something — or doesn’t (we’re not sure what’s real and what’s in Peter’s mind). But whatever’s happened disturbs him greatly. The barest hint at what that something might be comes as the ceremony is completed. Peter crushes a wine glass underfoot — a Jewish, not Polish, custom — while Zaneta throws hers over her head. “We do it differently,” she says. Differently indeed, since Peter is on the cusp of being possessed by a “dybbuk” (Yiddish for “clinging spirit”). The spirit in this case is that of Hana (Maria Debska), a Jewish beauty who lived in the nearby “shtetl” and died decades ago, perhaps murdered by the bride’s grandfather, or a victim of the Holocaust. Or both.
The core of the film features Peter’s possession — subtle, deep and physical — and the efforts of his in-laws and the wedding party to deal or not deal with what they increasingly understand to be its cause. In an act of collective repression carried out in a manic, rain-soaked orgy of music, dance, fornication, vodka and, now and then, caustic humor, family and guests attempt to forget what’s happening to the bridegroom in the basement and to deny as well the sordid Polish complicity in the Holocaust. As morning nears, Zygmunt, speaking metaphorically, tells those who remain that when they wake up, none of “this” will have happened. But it did.
Superb performances abound, led by Tiran’s Peter. Zulewska is perfect as the stand-by-your-man spouse, as is Grabowski as the tormented father, and Wlodzimierz Press as a Jewish professor.