A ghost story about the Holocaust seems like an atrociously bad idea. Besides insulting the memory of the victims and cheapening the crime, the metaphorical ghosts of the Holocaust are real enough without making literal specters of them. Only a profit-seeking schlock peddler would try to mix paranormal hoo-ha with pseudo-historical genocide fiction.
Yet that’s exactly what “Demon,” a Polish movie by the late writer and director Marcin Wrona, tries to do. And not only does the movie avoid giving offense, it also turns out to be a beautiful and chilling portrayal of Poland’s confrontation with its past.
The story takes place at a remote country estate, where there is about to be a wedding. The groom, Piotr (Itay Tiran), and the bride, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), have been dating for only a short while, but they are deeply in love. Though Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) is skeptical about their relationship, he welcomes Piotr with open arms, as does her brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt).
As soon as Piotr arrives, however, he starts to see disturbing things. On the ferry over, he witnesses what seems to be a drowning. On the estate itself he uncovers human remains with a backhoe. Whose are they, and how long have they been there? When he asks his prospective in-laws about the history of the property, they evade his questions. And when he tries to show them the skeleton, the hole has been filled in.
Piotr tries to put such things out of his mind — he is about to be married, after all. But the spooky events don’t let up. The night before the wedding, he dreams he is swallowed by a sinkhole, only to wake up in the seat of his truck. Just after the ceremony his wedding ring goes missing and cannot be found. Most disturbing, the estate seems to be haunted by the spirit of a dark-haired woman in a dirty wedding dress, whom only he can see. Such visions come to a head during the wedding itself, when the spirit of the woman seems to enter his body, and the celebration turns into a nightmare.
While the action takes place over less than two days, the cast of wedding guests allows the filmmakers to include a wide range of characters. There is the alcoholic doctor who claims that he never touches liquor, yet he becomes drunker and drunker as the evening progresses. There is the beleaguered priest, who firmly rejects any notion of an exorcism and wants nothing to do with this bizarre scene. And there is one old Jew, the village schoolteacher, who declares that Piotr is in fact inhabited by a dybbuk, the spirit of a dead person who has entered someone living.
The dybbuk, an ancient element of Jewish folklore, was made famous by “The Dybbuk,” a play, and later a movie, by writer and ethnographer S. An-sky. In An-sky’s story, the spirit of a deceased kabbalist inhabits the body of his beloved, Leah, who is about to marry another man. In “Demon” the dybbuk, Hana, takes similar action, inhabiting the body of the groom because she was denied her own marriage due to her untimely death.
Whereas An-sky’s play was a reworking of folklore, however, “Demon” is a reworking of history. “The whole country’s built on corpses,” one character says when told of the skeleton supposedly on the property. When Hana speaks through Piotr, saying in Yiddish, “Get out of my house,” it becomes clear that the property is haunted because it was stolen from dead Jews. The “Demon” of the title seems less a reference to the spirit of Hana than to the demons haunting all the guests at the wedding. As the night wears on they get drunker and drunker, succumbing to what seems like a mass psychosis.
Finally, with dawn breaking, the father of the bride gets up to deliver a speech. “Dearest guests, go back to your homes and sleep in peace,” he says.
When we open our eyes everything will be clear to us. We must forget what we didn’t see here. Because what we were eyewitnesses to was only the effect of a collective hallucination. We think we took part in it, but we only think we did. I’m dreaming you and you’re dreaming me. In fact there was never a wedding. You weren’t here. Neither is there a groom. And there never was.
“Demon” arrives at a sensitive moment for Poland. Since 2015 the right-wing Law and Justice party has governed the country, and the party’s Cabinet approved a bill in August outlawing reference to “Polish death camps,” along with other assertions of Polish war crimes. While historians have affirmed that the concentration camps of the Holocaust were the work of German Nazis, not Poles, the law — which makes such references punishable by up to three years in prison — has been viewed as an effort by Poland to whitewash its history. “You may think we took part in it,” the government seems to be saying, “but you only think we did.”
“Demon,” however, is more than just a rebuke to Poland. Aesthetically the film is a work of beauty, with its visual palette creating a stark contrast between the luminous, white-and-gold of the wedding and the stormy night outside. So, too, the joyous folk music of the party contrasts with the more ominous soundtrack in the background. And through his dybbuk possession, Piotr himself becomes two different people — the handsome, confident groom and the terrified but vindictive Hana. This performance alone makes the movie worthwhile.
Here, too, the meaning of these contrasts is plain. The guests at the wedding may dress up and make merry, but they can never get the mud off their boots. So, too, their country may try to move on from its past, but the past isn’t so easily shed. History, as James Joyce put it, is a nightmare from which we’re all trying to awake. In “Demon,” that nightmare is all too real.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward and the editor of the forthcoming “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction of the Forward.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @EzraG
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.