“Demon”—a weird, mesmerizing film by Polish writer/director Marcin Wrona—dubbed by some as a reworking of “The Dybbuk” — is akin to a cinematic nightmare for those of us who experienced Poland’s pre-war anti-Semitism and survived to see the attempt—by some—to gloss over that painful past.
The film opens with English-speaking Peter (wonderful Israeli actor Itay Tiran) returning from England to his family’s decaying house in rural Poland to marry his fiancé Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). On the eve of the ceremony—amidst a crush of festively garbed wedding guests—Peter falls into a mud hole and discovers human skeletal remains, which triggers his psychotic meltdown. He is wracked by visions of a mystical young woman Hannah and begins to babble in Yiddish. As a torrential downpour interrupts the celebration, guests in a crescendo of abandon, drink and dance in frenzy. A priest, a doctor and a Jewish professor hesitatingly intervene in the hope of rescuing the possessed Peter while the bride’s family and intimates dismiss whatever it was that triggered Peter’s breakdown as hallucinatory.
I was able to chat with Olga Szymanska in Poland, the film’s young executive director and widow of 42-year old Marcin Wrona (who died in a hotel room in Poland a few days before its 2015 U.S. Festival launch).
Olga: This is not an accusing film as others have been…but still there is the patina of “let’s forget”. We have one thousand years of Polish-Jewish history…it is difficult to forget that we have this common past where we have been living together. We filmed in Krakow and 50 kilometers from Tarnow which was 50% Jewish…there is still the architecture…yet no Jews living there.
Masha: I noticed so many Jewish/Yiddish ”touches” and wonder if people who are not Jewish would understand this subtext…. When Peter is carried in on a chair held by revelers, and steps on a glass—emblematic of Jewish wedding for both bride and groom— the melodic soundtrack of the lullaby from Abraham Goldfadden’s Opera “Shulamis” Oyf Yidele’s Vigele [“on Yidele’s [cradle]…. there are raisins and almonds”]. (Olga was unsure about this particular choice of music).
Olga: The end is an open ending. You can consider [Peter] disappearing into the past…or killed and put in the lake…You don’t know if he is a real person or imaginary person. If he came back as a ghost…or is/was a member of the family in the photograph found in the pit…Dark questions which have to be answered by the audience. You can see [interpret] read it in many different ways.
Masha: What was the reaction to the film in Poland?
Olga: It was pretty quiet… Hard to tell why. It was premiered in Toronto, got a great review. Then [in] Gdynia (Gdansk)…most were good but then after Marcin’s death in Gdynia —you know he committed suicide…. We were just married— it was a shock for me…This was an absolute catastrophe… people were scared of the movie.
Masha: You mean the [anti-Semitic] sub-text?
Olga: Premiered a month after his death. They did not want to mention it after Marcin’s death… It was very weird…I was in a different state of mind—difficult to remove a movie after it happened… You ask about Polish-Jewish context. One review by a very right wing Catholic magazine said it was an anti-Polish movie…but did not criticize it as much as:”Ida”. I agree. Now in Poland it’s crazy things happening…The last news was they want to [exhume] Jedwabne victims!”
Masha: What a bizarre take on “Demon”—life imitating art!”
“Demon” opens September 9 in New York and Los Angeles.