How Marcin Wrona's Demon Evokes Poland's Holocaust Denialism - VRGyani News and Media

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Friday, August 6, 2021

How Marcin Wrona's Demon Evokes Poland's Holocaust Denialism

As a genre, horror remains extremely compelling since not only does it allow for fantastical creativity in its monsters, ghosts, killers, and imaginative scenarios, but for the fact that said creations can serve as symbolic dialogues on real life situations, emotions, and ideas. In horror, the paranoia of survivors trapped by zombies can represent the racial fears and tensions of the 1960's (Night of the Living Dead), a faceless killer bound on slashing babysitters can speak to the conflict and strife of the world creeping into idyllic suburbia (Halloween), and crazy body swapping mind control illustrates the subtle racism of everyday life (Get Out). With 2015’s Demon, a supernatural possession represents a nation’s unwillingness to reconcile with one of history’s greatest atrocities - the Holocaust.

Demon comes from Polish director Marcin Wrona, who tragically took his own life in September of 2015 while promoting Demon at the Gdynia Film Festival. Based on a 2008 play by Piotr Rowicki, Demon follows the English bridegroom Piotr (Italy Tiran) as he returns to his ancestral homeland of Poland to marry his Polish fiance Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), among her family in her hometown. Spending the night before his wedding on the large plot of land he is about to inherit, Piotr discovers buried remains and is possessed by a mournful spirit in a reimagining of the Jewish legend of the dybbuk: a malevolent spirit who possess others until their unfinished earthly business is completed. Piotr’s marriage and life are at stake as his in-laws attempt to conceal the truth of the possession.

To someone who hasn’t seen the film, the plot escalation of Demon sounds almost comical, like something from My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Death at a Funeral. Piotr is haunted more and more by visions of a woman in a wedding dress throughout the wedding party, eventually succumbing to convulsions, but the in-laws try their best to keep the guests calm and hide Piotr’s condition, which deteriorates into an all out state of possession by the spirit of a girl named Hana. However, the spiral of chaos at the wedding is anything but funny, with Tiran’s haunting performance and a soundtrack of dissonant strings creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that reinforces the film’s true allegorical context.

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Demon is a movie about denial. As Anton Bitel wrote for the website Little White Lies: “Much as the local doctor (Adam Woronowicz) keeps insisting that he is teetotal even as he furtively gets drunk from a hidden flask, Zaneta’s family, indeed the whole community, is in a sort of collective denial." The family members do their best to entertain the wedding guests while keeping Piotr’s worsening condition a secret, not only because they do not want the wedding ruined and their name besmirched, but because of the historical crime that Poland as a whole tries to ignore. As the elderly Szymon Wentz (Wlodzimierz Press), who appears to be the only Jewish man left in the town, reveals: Hana, the spirit possessing Piotr, is that of a young Jewish girl who “disappeared” from the town during World War II. Here the truth comes together: on the surface level, Zaneta’s family killed Hana and stole the land of her family, making them complicit in the Holocaust, and motivating them to keep this possession a secret, lest the spirit of Hana out the family for their crimes. However, on a grand scale, Poland as a nation seeks to forget their participation in the Holocaust, a national sense of willing amnesia, lest they reconcile with their culpability in the atrocity. And so, Piotr’s possession is denied, just as Poland’s national guilt is denied.

The demon in the film is not Hana, who is a victim long forgotten by a town more than willing to pave over the past. The demons are the everyday people, like Zaneta’s father, who refuse to reconcile with their dark familial and national past, to the point of letting Piotr die to keep the unacknowledged truth buried. The demon is modern Poland’s willing disconnect from their actions. Writing in The Atlantic, Edna Friedberg described Poland’s current law criminalizing the assignation of blame on Poland, explaining “The law, which was recently ratified by the parliament in Warsaw and which President Andrzej Duda announced Tuesday he will sign, threatens up to three years imprisonment to anyone who ‘publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes.'" While Poland itself was occupied by the Nazis and many Poles helped, in part, to protect Jews, this incorrect total denial of Holocaust collaboration by Poland is the root crime that drives Hana’s wronged spirit, as well as Wrona in crafting the events and themes of his film. Demon is not only built on the fear of the supernatural and terrifying dybbuk, but, as Masha Gessen of The New Yorker writes, “This nagging awareness of having taken someone else’s place animates a fear that is peculiarly common in Poland seventy-five years after the end of the war: the fear of Jews, or their descendants, returning to reclaim their property."

As Piotr lays dead and the wedding guests leave, Zaneta’s father reinforces the denial, telling the guests “There never was a wedding…. Neither is there a groom.” Piotr’s car is hidden, the old house on what was to be the newlyweds property is destroyed, and everyone decides to continue the amnesia that supports their peace of mind. The possession is not cured and the past is not reconciled, dooming the village, and Poland at large, to inevitably encounter this dark past again one day. As Katie Rife wrote in her review for The AV Club: “What [Zaneta’s father] doesn’t understand is that same refusal to face the past—to acknowledge that the butcher shop was once a synagogue, and the empty houses by the river once had Jewish children playing in them—is why the dybbuk has come back to haunt his family in the first place.”

Through the fantastical supernatural occurrence of the dybbuk, Demon allows for a scathing commentary of modern Poland, in a way which provides the viewer emotional investment that makes the actual reality all the more tragic. Is this willful ignorance bliss, or is it a festering wound of the past that remains unaddressed, only continuing to worsen with time? Wrona seemed to believe the latter, but, even though he is gone, hopefully his film will continue to live on and inspire a confrontation of the dark truth which lies at the heart of his home country.

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