This modern Polish adaptation of the dybbuk in Jewish mythology is a haunting event both heightened and slightly hindered by editing, tone, and ambiguous message.
With a subtle twist of the genre film, the late Polish director Marcin Wrona (1973-2015) pays tribute to the breadth of cinematic horror, from Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), to Żuławski’s Possession (1981), while tapping into a kind of surreal, unnerving revelry reserved for a Béla Tarr epic (Satan’s Tango). Demon is a decidedly basic title for a specific adaptation of Piotr Rowicki’s Adherence, a play that simultaneously takes on the real horrors in Polish and Jewish cultural history through the guise of the supernatural ghost story. From its introductory construction site imagery, the film promises to be a literal unearthing of buried tensions, but the true surprise during its 90-minute running-time is how Wrona wrings humor from the escalating marital disasters and portentous storm clouds hanging in the Polish countryside.
Initially paced with alternatingly slow-panning shots and strangely frantic edits, the film promises a disjointed and disorienting metaphysical journey. This is further complemented in the droning chamber score by Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki (that seeks to assimilate the recent output by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans), sickly earth tone palette, and the segues in-and-out of Polish, English, and Yiddish languages; however, in this supposedly sober part of Demon, the uneven transitions often fail to establish a clear and coherent emotional connection between eager groom-to-be, Piotr (an impressively agile Itay Tiran), and his glowing bride Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Piotr has just arrived from London for their wedding at/on the rural Polish premises they’ll collectively inherit from her portly father (Andrzej Grabowski). Yet, despite this brusqueness of beginnings, a lingering fascination holds in the protagonist’s idealistic attitude. After all, he is, by all accounts, starting a new life after meeting Zaneta online.
Upon tending to the grounds alone, Piotr’s optimism is quickly, quietly soured in a gruesome discovery of what appears to be a vision of an open grave of half-buried human bones, like something out of an Unsolved Mysteries dramatization. The sight provokes immediate obsession and threatens to upset the carefully laid plans for the vows and reception. Any notions of spiritual illness or neurosis are shrugged off in favor of the celebratory occasion. As the wedding centerpiece erratically plays out in the second act, Wrona’s deliberate synchronization of premise and location achieves great psychological effect. In a gathering where vodka flows like water, distorted cognition and inebriation are inevitable; behaviors under the influence and in the heat of the moment are seen as permissible. When Piotr’s earlier uncovering begins to physically manifest in restlessness and sudden outbursts, blame is cast out in all directions — from alcohol, his own nerves, to Zaneta’s brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), whose father believes is playing an elaborate practical joke to “wind him up.”
These speculations are finally pushed aside in the increasingly visceral turns that are met with the steady denial (and comic relief) from Zaneta’s parents, particularly her father who sees the real horror as the ravaged wedding. He then attempts to bury any revelations with excuses of dog bones, epilepsy, and public placation of Piotr’s “food poisoning.” Following Piotr’s spasmodic episode during a boisterous dance in the barn, he’s bound and imprisoned in the basement for his own safety. Confinement seems to plainly evince the possession that some had feared — a spirit (or dybbuk) of a local girl named Hana clinging to Piotr in an effort to “carry on what death interrupted” during the Holocaust. Or so recognizes a Jewish professor named Szymon Wentz, who claims to have pined for the disappeared Hana in his youth.
In almost solely delegating this information and unseen backstory to Szymon, the film’s tension threatens to unravel. Tone is further complicated by a troubled conversation between two older men that seems too graphically ingrained in the director’s consciousness to be wholly comical, evoking Pitor’s possession as a metaphor for the fear of native Poles intermixing with other cultures. However, this short scene also articulates the everlasting impact and persistence of stigmas that were perhaps thought to be long dead as the result of suppression and ignorance. The many questions surrounding the mystical relationship between cultural identities in Demon will go formally unanswered, as the director tragically passed away during its festival run in 2015; what remains, though, is a fascinating, atmospheric experience that swings between uncanny horror and familial drama. These qualities would make it an asset to Madison’s Polish Film Festival, which annually screens films in autumn at the Union South Marquee.