Review: ‘Demon’ updates dybbuk with echoes of Holocaust

Itay Tiran plays Python, an architect who returns from England for his wedding. Photo by Margaret Gordon
Itay Tiran plays Python, an architect who returns from England for his wedding.
Photo by Margaret Gordon

The first “character” we meet in Marcin Wrona’s coolly fascinating “Demon” is a yellow bulldozer, rolling menacingly through the empty streets of a Polish village. It’s a harbinger, as well as a metaphor — but of what?

Bulldozers dig, and they bury. Both tasks are central to the plot of “Demon,” which seizes on the disturbing idea of the dybbuk — a ghost who takes possession of a bridegroom on his wedding day — and reimagines it in the contemporary world.

A world, that is, in which the Holocaust is part of our experience. Even for those who have buried it in hopes of forgetting.

“Demon” is a Polish-Israeli coproduction that is by turns deeply unsettling and absurdly funny. The film follows the arrival of handsome architect Python (Israeli actor Itay Tiran of “Lebanon”) from England for the unambiguously happy occasion of his wedding. The groom is Polish, like his lovely bride, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and her family. But we have the disquieting feeling from the get-go that he is apart, on his own, an innocent outsider who has (in horror-film tradition) unknowingly ventured into a situation of unimaginable dangers.

Setting to work on the yard behind the decrepit farmhouse that Zaneta’s family owns and has bequeathed to the couple, Python hops on the ominous, aforementioned bulldozer. A noise makes him stop almost immediately; he discovers that he has unearthed bones.

So begins Python’s descent from a rational, regular guy to a tormented figure of unreachable despair. Unfortunately, but also comically, his transformation mostly takes place during the marathon rain- and vodka-soaked reception after the wedding ceremony.

Wrona and writer Pawel Maslona freely adapted the latter’s 2008 play, whose title translates as “Adherence” or “Clinging.” The director’s decision to shift the setting to a wedding was clearly inspired by the 1937 Polish-Yiddish film, “Der Dibek” (“The Dybbuk”), itself adapted from a play by Shimon Ansky.

In the press notes, “Demon” producer Olga Szymanska says, “We wound up doing a lot of research into the history of the [dybbuk] story, not to mention Jewish-Polish history in general. If you read the studies on the dybbuk, those who became possessed by the spirit find themselves unable to speak. It originated in a very orthodox society of Jews, so it was the idea of this voice that could never have been heard which was longing to be heard.”

Given the clue or two I planted above, and this review’s appearance in a Jewish publication, you will have an idea of the general nature of the long-suppressed secret that the spirit who inhabits Python desperately wants uttered.

The specific details are melancholy and enigmatic, and Wrona conveys them with chilling effectiveness. (The viewer is haunted also by the knowledge that Wrona died — reportedly a suicide — at 42, shortly after the film’s world premiere a year ago.)

It’s always of interest when Polish filmmakers choose to address their country’s past and the specter of anti-Semitism, in part because they — and their fellow citizens — have historically been more reluctant to do so than their German and French counterparts.

So “Demon” provokes memories of “Aftermath,” the excellent Polish thriller from 2012 that likewise involved the physical excavation of the Jewish past (gravestones, in this case) and also invoked an otherworldly presence.

The kind of movie that lingers in the mind for days afterward, “Demon” contains any number of images that don’t just stick but demand to be puzzled over further. The more literal-minded viewer, meanwhile, will find plenty to mull in the movie’s slicing comments on present-day Poland.

“Demon” is showing at the Landmark E Street Cinema. In Polish, English and Yiddish with English subtitles, 94 minutes, rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film reviewer.

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