For his last movie, Marcin Wrona merges comedy and horror to create a story about our memories, myths and forgotten guilt. Demon turns out to be the best film in Wrona’s oeuvre.
Polish cinema has never really been fond of genre stories, and has often struggled to link styles seemingly unrelated to one another. But Marcin Wrona has managed it. His film Demon is an excellent marriage of horror and comedy, ostensibly dressed up as a genre costume story about Poland and Poles.
Wrona's picture begins as classic horror. A young man (Ilkay Tiran) comes to a small Polish town. He is supposed to marry a Polish woman (Agnieszka Żulewska) he met in the British Isles, and then renovate a house – a gift from his father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski). As Piotr prepares for the renovation, he comes across human remains. Nobody can explain where they came from, nor are they particularly interested in his discovery. The whole matter could probably have been ignored, but then Piotr sees the ghost of a Jewish girl at his wedding.
In his last film, Wrona fuses The Wedding / Wesele by Smarzowski and the classic Dybuk by Szymon An-ski. It’s a film constructed from anxiety, shivers and ambiguity. The trivial is linked with the metaphysical. Wrona, whose previous films were considered to be grounded in realism, invites his audience this time on a tour of the world of fantasy and horror. But this choice is not escapist – when talking about the supernatural world, the director is also talking about modern Poland and its own demons.
Poland is portrayed in Demon as a country built on graves that we wish to forget, a country of robbed Jewish fortunes and forgotten old neighbours. It is the home of a well-embalmed collective memory. In the final scene, a character played by Andrzej Grabowski asks guests to forget about the wedding and believe that the evening was nothing more than a nightmare. Wrona puts symbolic weight into this monologue, connecting it with the Polish way of thinking about the Holocaust. His film is about displacing from our memories those inconvenient thoughts that destroy our idealised image of the national community. This final scene brings to mind Somersault directed by Tadeusz Konwicki – Wrona's horror, just like Sennik Współczesny and its adaptation Somersault, is a story about national illusions and communities built upon false myths.
Thanks to Demon, Wrona has entered the heated discussion about Polish-Jewish relationships that was unleashed few years ago due to Pasikowski's Aftermath, Pawlikowski's Ida and Wojcieszek's Secret. But in his lat film the director of The Christening turns away from radical opinions and strong, journalistic statements. Demon is supposed to be about remorse rather than an indictment about taking part in the Holocaust. It is a story telling how easily and eagerly we have forgotten about the tragedy of our former neighbours.
Above all, it is a successful horror film, where narrative and storytelling schemes are filtered through the director's sensibilities and then subjected to his story. Wrona, who in his previous films My Flesh and Blood and The Christening used a parable-like form complemented by symbolic meanings, this time turns to frivolity. The wedding in his film is an event more in the vein of Szmarowski than Wyspiański. Although Wrona talks about Polishness in terms of disadvantages and flaws, instead of being a soothsayer, he presents himself as a jester. Demon in this regard is particularly similar to Smarzowski's The Wedding .
My Flesh and Blood
A real testament to the strength of Demon is its perfectly chosen cast, including Andrzej Grabowski, Agnieszka Żulewska and Adam Woronowicz. The latter in particular plays an excellent supporting role as a doctor trying to hide his alcoholism. Woronowicz is a “comedy animal”, exaggerating his characters splendidly by giving them unique gestures, facial expressions and vocal intonations that help make his scenes comedic masterpieces.
However he is not the only one demonstrating their acting prowess. Tomasz Schuchardt as the bride's brother, a man dominated by his father yet forever trying to win his appreciation, and Tomasz Ziętek in the quiet but perfectly-performed role of a boy from the neighbourhood, are both wonderful. All of them however, must step aside for the performance by Itay Tiran, an actor known mostly from Lebanon by Samuel Maoz. He manages to play the demon-possessed groom with such impressive versatility and expressiveness that he is able to depict the possession without need for special effects.
The tragic death of Marcin Wrona during the 40th Gdynia Film Festival will inevitably profoundly mark perception of his final film. But it should be seen on its own merits as a film that is a rare phenomenon in Polish cinema – a strictly genre picture that is rich in deeper meaning. Brilliantly shot by Paweł Flis and filmed within an extremely short period (barely 22 days), Demon deserves a comprehensive and attentive reading. Because although it pretends to be just another horror, in fact it says a lot about Polish history and its consequences.
- Demon, Director: Marcin Wrona. Written by Marcin Wrona and Paweł Maślona. Cinematography: Paweł Flis. Music: Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki. Editing: Piotr Kmiecik. Cast: Itay Tiran, Tomasz Schuchardt, Andrzej Grabowski, Agnieszka Żulewska, Tomasz Więcek and Adam Woronowicz. Polish premiere: 16th October 2015.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, transl. ND, September 2015