Marriage Trap

Stuart Liebman on Marcin Wrona’s Demon

Marcin Wrona, Demon, 2015, color, sound, 94 minutes. Piotr (Itay Tiran).

THE APPARENT SUICIDE of forty-two-year-old director Marcin Wrona at the Gdynia Film Festival in September last year deprived Polish cinema of one of its most impressive emerging talents. The six feature-length movies and several shorts he made over the past decade showcase his fascination with characters living at the edge of violence. The roles he helped to script—a boxer filled with rage at his incurable illness in Moja Krew (My Flesh, My Blood, 2009); in Chrzest (The Christening, 2010), a soldier turned hit man forced to murder the friend who saved him from drowning—were provocative, even kinky. The muscular, gritty performances he coaxed from both veteran actors and newcomers recall Scorsese’s early work, but, as if to balance their centrifugal force, Wrona contained them within rigorous narrative frameworks that hark back to those Jean Renoir pioneered in the 1930s.

These structural tensions create an aura of instability, a sense that propels Wrona’s final—and best—film, Demon (2015). Its story revolves around a wedding, a social ritual he, like Andrzej Wajda in Wesele (A Wedding, 1973), uses to explore something nagging at the consciousness of his Polish compatriots. Wajda’s theme was the failure of intellectuals and peasants to mount a national revolution. Wrona chooses to explore a more controversial idea—the disappearance of Jews from Poland during and after World War II. The Nazis were, of course, responsible for the Holocaust in which 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered. But beyond this fact lurks an unpalatable and largely repressed truth: Some Poles betrayed, persecuted, or even murdered Jews to protect property they had illicitly acquired, and few, then or now, mourn their absence. Poland’s embrace of Western Europe after the fall of Communism prompted historical and political debates about this unsavory chapter, and these, in turn, awakened memories in which the ghosts of their former neighbors have reappeared with surprising frequency in Polish cultural production. (Polish filmmakers took the lead here: Kidawa-Błoński’s Różyczka [Little Rose, 2010], Pasikowski’s Pokłosie [Aftermath, 2012], and Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida [2014] are among the best-known recent examples.)

Wrona and his coscriptwriter Paweł Masłona avoid blunt reckoning with this confusing, problematic past. The narrative is rooted in inexplicable events that wrap an historical enigma in conventional horror movie tropes. They build their story on stark contrasts, in which caustic portrayals of contemporary Polish rural society fuse with disarming, humorous moments and unexpected plunges into the supernatural.

Marcin Wrona, Demon, 2015, color, sound, 94 minutes. Żaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska).

We first meet Piotr (Itay Tiran), a Polish-speaking Englishman, riding a ferry across a placid river. A policeman’s rescue of a screaming woman from the water introduces a disquieting note. Piotr has arrived to marry Żaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) after a lightning romance abroad. Despite her father’s qualms about this stranger, the wedding preparations proceed. Piotr explores a tumbledown villa, a wedding gift from Żaneta’s family that will be the young couple’s home. He impulsively begins to dig a swimming pool, only to be sucked into the muck of an uncanny nightmare. He has uncovered human bones that no one else can see or explain.

Piotr’s behavior grows increasingly bizarre. As the dancing and drinking at the wedding party become more frenetic (thanks to cinematographer Paweł Flis’s brilliant camerawork and Piotr Kmiecik’s deft editing), a dead woman appears to Piotr and his body is convulsed by epileptic spasms. The revelers are alarmed, not least Żaneta’s embarrassed father (Andrzej Grabowski), worried about what his neighbors will think. The ministrations of a doctor and a priest do not help as Piotr’s voice rises an octave and out of his mouth comes…Yiddish. He has become “Hana,” whose bones he had found beside the villa owned by her wealthy family. Now, as an elderly Jewish wedding guest explains, Hana has become a vengeful dybbuk, seizing the body of a lover her murderers denied her. Rumors of a Jewish spirit in their midst swirl through the festivities, yet most celebrants are content to drink the night away, indifferent to the groom’s fate. Piotr later vanishes from the story without explanation.

It is to Wrona’s credit that what might seem a far-fetched dramatic premise comes alive in his sharply satirical depiction of a self-involved, closed, even paranoid Polish society unwilling to face its past. The locations he selects—a quarry, a haunted house in the backwaters of Poland—resonate as symbols in a quasi-allegory figuring the fate of the Jews. The story is limned by questions that provoke discomforting reflections: What happened to Hana? How did Żaneta’s family acquire her villa? Is Piotr himself a Jewish avatar? Scattered hints about crimes, of ill-gotten gains, at first obliquely, then with increasing urgency, construct a mournful indictment of a possible marriage of peoples and faiths that, like this wedding, was never fully consummated though the engagement ended in blood.

Demon opens Friday, September 9 at Lincoln Plaza and Landmark’s Sunshine in New York and Landmark’s Nuart in Los Angeles.