Polish horror film conjures ghost, past atrocities

The first “character” we meet in “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 reimagines the Jewish folkloric notion of a dybbuk — in this case, a ghost who takes possession of a bridegroom on his wedding day — 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.

Actors (from left) Itay Tiran, Cezary Kosinski and Agnieszka Zulewska in “Demon”

A coolly fascinating film, by turns deeply unsettling and absurdly funny, “Demon” opens Friday, Sept. 16 in San Francisco and Berkeley. In Polish, English and Yiddish, with English subtitles as needed, the film is a Polish-Israeli co-production.

It follows the arrival in Poland of handsome architect Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran of “Lebanon”) from England for the happy occasion of his wedding to the lovely Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Like his bride and her family, the groom is Polish, but we are given the unsettling 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.

Working in the yard behind the decrepit farmhouse that Zaneta’s family has bequeathed to the couple, Piotr hops on the aforementioned ominous bulldozer. A noise makes him stop almost immediately, whence he discovers that he has unearthed bones.

So begins his 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.

Director Marcin 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 S. 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.”

Sure enough, in “Demon,” there is a long-suppressed secret that the spirit who inhabits Piotr desperately wants uttered. The details are melancholy and enigmatic, and Wrona conveys them with chilling effectiveness.

Moreover, many a viewer will be haunted by the knowledge that Wrona, who died at 42 in September 2015, reportedly committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel room in Gdynia, Poland, during a film festival there that was about to show “Demon.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “a few journalists have suggested parallels between Piotr’s on-screen anguish and the private suffering of the director.”

From my perspective, 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” opens Friday, Sept. 16 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley. (In Polish, English and Yiddish with English subtitles, 94 minutes, rated R)

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.