Demon: The horrors of the past are most present when we have nearly forgot
I am starting this discussion of the film Demon (Poland, 2015) in a different place than when I originally watched it a few months ago. While it already seemed timely to discuss in relation to many aspects of American politics and the rise of extreme nationalist groups, I did not know enough about Polish politics to forsee the passage of the controversial “Holocaust law” by its current sitting government.
The film has been subject to a form of contemporary suppression, having been vote brigaded to low reviews on IMDB shortly after it’s release. The tragic death of its director, Marcin Wrona, has also overshadowed much of the writing on Demon. With the success of Get Out and the VVitch, we are at a cultural high point of Horror as a form of social critique. I am looking to place Wrona’s film within this context. It serves as a warning that memorializing and memory are not one in the same; one is a mnemonic in service of the other, and is susceptible to fallacy and corruption.
“Whoever does not partake in society is either a god or a beast. There is no man without society and there is no society without memory.”
This paraphrase of Aristotle’s Politics, delivered by aging teacher (Wlodzimierz Press) at the wedding reception of Piotr (Itay Tiran) and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) establishes the arch of the narrative for 2015’s Demon, the final film in the short life of director Marcin Wrona. Set in a rural community in contemporary Poland, Demon explores the remnants of pre-war Europe; a history whose lived memory remains with so few, and whose trauma is in danger of being lost to time.
The film centers on the character of Piotr, a man of Polish ancestry raised in the UK. He travels to a rural community for his wedding to Zaneta, a woman with whom he has been internet dating. Piotr has never met his wife-to-be in person, and his only relation to the community is Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt), Zaneta’s brother, who he had been friends with in England. The couple have been gifted a dilapidated family farm, which Piotr (an engineer) plans to redesign for them. He is anxious to prove himself to his new family and make his mark on the land, instructing Ronaldo (Tomasz Zietek), another brother of Zaneta, to stop using an excavator so that he can oversee the clearing of trees. This act sets the stage for the connecting of the land’s past and present; while manning the excavator the next day, Piotr inadvertently backs into a tree, revealing human bones beneath its roots.
Strange occurrences ensue, with Piotr first envisioning, then becoming possessed by, a young woman named Hana (Maria Debska) over the course of his wedding celebration. When possessed, he begins speaking in Yiddish, a language only the town’s aging teacher is able to identify. The teacher is presented as the last Jew in the community, and his interaction with Hana through Piotr floods his mind with memories of a pre-Holocaust landscape, of which he is the last remaining link.
Demon’s world is fleshed out by unveiling the presence of the past. Hauntology, a term originating in the philosopher Derrida’s critical theory, looks for the moments in which disembodied fragments of the past are both present and not present simultaneously. Piotr, Hana, and the teacher all play a role in the hauntology of this setting, making concrete the traces inherent in the Polish landscape and its people.
Though he is able to converse extensively in Polish, Piotr’s new family make it clear that he is not of this place, commenting on his pronunciation and correcting him as he moves through the wedding rituals. He notes early in the reception that much of his knowledge of the culture was transmitted from his grandmother, and it is hinted that his family has Jewish origins when he breaks a glass with his foot that he was supposed to throw with Zaneta. By displaying difference between Piotr and the generations of Poles who have remained in their homeland, we are asked to look at the lack of Jews in the community and reflect back on the horrors that created his family’s displacement.
The haunting by Hana hits similar notes of difference. Her conversations with the teacher reveal her to be the dybbuk of Jewish folklore, a malicious unsettled soul that clings to the soul of another. This cultural reference, while important, holds less weight than the act of Hana speaking Yiddish through Piotr. The “rational” see Piotr as epileptic or mentally ill, the spiritual recognize him as potentially possessed, but only the teacher recognizes him as Hana, a girl he knew from his pre-Holocaust youth. While Piotr saw the unsettled soul, the teacher is experiencing her through language.
The strange occurrences around the wedding bring forth an invisible landscape for the teacher. While giving his “Aristotle” speech, he struggled to remember and describe the former layout of the farm. After being confronted with the possibility of Hana’s presence, he seems to remember the town more vividly. On a drive with Zaneta, the teacher describes the butcher shop that was once the synagogue and the various paths that led through the town before its modern incarnation. We are not shown these things cinematically; they exist only through his words. Like the presence of Hana, the teacher is the only conduit to this world.
After the disappearance of Piotr/Hana, Zaneta’s family chooses to move forward as if the wedding and the events that followed never occurred, to the clear devastation of the bride. Ronaldo is sent to dispose of Piotr’s car and eventually the old farm is cleared. We are left with a series of short happenings that imprint a cyclical nature on the events: the wedding guests leave at sunrise and encounter/disrupt a funeral procession, a photograph appears in the rubble of the family farm showing a wedding party with Hana and Piotr as the bride and groom, Zaneta leaves on the same ferry that brought Piotr to town, wearing his jacket. In choosing to cover up the events of the previous evening, Zaneta’s family in turn reinscribes a kind of trauma on the landscape and drives Zaneta into exile.
Demon (2015) | Director: Marcin Wrona | Writers: Pawel Maslona, Marcin Wrona | Staring Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska