The woman in white appears in 'Demon'
The woman in white appears in ‘Demon’
The woman in white appears in ‘Demon’

Before the Second World War, heavily Catholic Poland was also home to most of the world’s Jewish population. That changed, of course, during the war, when at least 90% of Poland’s 3 million Jews were killed by the Nazi extermination machine, leaving only a few thousand survivors behind.

Poland is still coming to terms with the legacy left by the Jewish Holocaust’s dead millions. Director Marcin Wrona’s Demon (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 16) examines that legacy, emphasizing how this historical memory has largely been left buried and forgotten by the country’s Christian majority.

Based on Piotr Rowicki’s play ‘Clinging’, Demon takes place in a decrepit southern town where the rain never seems to let up. Fashionable youngster Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiron) has returned from success in London to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), daughter of local mining magnate Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski).

A plot of land for a new home is daddy’s generous gift to the happy couple; the day before the wedding brother-in-law-to-be Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) gives them a tour, explaining how the trees will soon be bulldozed and replaced by a swimming pool. Things take on a more ominous aspect after dark, however: alone with his thoughts, Piotr discovers a hole filled with skeletal remains and glimpses a mysterious figure in white. Spooky.

Nonetheless, the wedding goes ahead as planned. A raucous reception follows, and as the day wanes (and as the celebrants descend further into drunken incoherence and bellicosity) Piotr begins to behave more and more strangely. At first diagnosed by the town doctor as epileptic, his ailment is ultimately revealed to be something worse: possession by the spirit of woman-in-white Hana, a Holocaust victim buried on the grounds in an unmarked grave.

Earthy metaphors run like a seam of coal throughout Demon. An earth digger uproots trees and turns soil; Zygmunt’s mine is seen in full operation; characters dig deep into the ground in search of the elusive skeleton that has changed Piotr’s life for the worse.

Though Piotr’s travails are the film’s narrative focus, the wedding party remains its primary setting. In scenes reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Demon’s shindig goes on and on and on – and despite heavy winds, rain, and the groom’s extremely odd behavior, no one seems willing (or even able) to leave.

It’s possible, of course, to read Demon as a straightforward supernatural thriller, but the film eschews much of what viewers expect from contemporary cinematic horror.  Tiron may wildly contort his body and babbles in Yiddish, but there’s little in the way of jump scares or grue.

It makes far more sense to read the film as an allegory on Poland’s recent past, when a huge segment of its people and history simply disappeared – what was once a synagogue, for example, is now a bakery. As Zygmunt proclaims as he finally dismisses his guests, “we must forget what we didn’t see here”.

A sad footnote to the feature: director Wrona hanged himself during a Polish film festival in late 2015. His work on Demon had, apparently, ‘inspired a suicidal atmosphere’, and the failure of his film to win a prize drove him over the edge.

News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...