A Polish horror movie — where are the Jews?

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

The dybbuk makes its presence felt during the wedding reception in “Demon.”
The dybbuk makes its presence felt during the wedding reception in “Demon.”

I have never been a big fan of horror movies, but I learned very quickly that the Polish-Israeli co-production “Demon” is not your ordinary horror film.

That’s because the horrors that underlie this film are the atrocities suffered by the Jewish people, largely on Polish soil. The plot is a simple one. Peter (Itay Tiran) arrives from England for his wedding to Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), set to take place at her family farm in present-day rural Poland. The estate has been left to deteriorate over the years, but the young Polish couple has been given the deed to it as a wedding present from Zaneta’s family. They plan to turn the rotting property into the home of their dreams. All the necessary heavy equipment is in place for the renovation — and then a bulldozer uncovers human remains, and Peter stumbles on the pit where they lie. Just whose bones had he found? What was their history? A bit disconcerted by his find, Peter seeks answers while the wedding ceremony and celebrations move forward.

Then bizarre things begin to happen.

The real story Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona and his co-screenwriter Pawel Maslona are telling is the one most Jews feel when they visit Poland. Certainly I felt it. What lies under the ground on which I am walking? Is it the bones and ashes of my people?

“Demon’s” writers and their generation of young Poles, who have little to no contact with Jews, are still very much aware of the Jewish community’s millennium-long existence in Poland, and of its decimation. They visit the concentration camps and learn about the suffering of Jews along with the suffering of their people amid the barbarity of World War II. The absence of Jews certainly is felt across Poland, particularly in the larger cities, and it is hardly surprising that this new generation of Polish filmmakers has been undertaking film projects about Jews.

Itay Tiran and Agnieszka Zulewska star as the newlywed couple in “Demon.”
Itay Tiran and Agnieszka Zulewska star as the newlywed couple in “Demon.”

What is interesting is that while the Holocaust and other Jewish subjects have been very much a part of Polish cinema during these last 70 years, recent films focus on the Jew who is not present.

I had an opportunity to interview “Demon” producer Olga Szymanska this week, and I asked her about this new way of dealing with Jews and the Holocaust in Polish cinema. After all, four years ago Wladyslaw Pasikowski made “Aftermath,” a film about two Polish brothers who erect a memorial to Jews on their farm and incur the wrath of their community when they begin investigating what happened to those Jews during the war. Then there was Pawel Pawilikowski’s Oscar-winning “Ida,” which studied the hidden and unknown Jew in the person of a young nun about to take her vows. In “Demon,” we discover that the bones Peter finds are Jewish remains and we learn exactly why they are found on the property.

Had Szymanska or director Marcin Wrona discovered some Jewish ancestry, I asked. What drew them to tackle a story about the Jewish past? Much to my surprise, Szymanska made no reference to the Shoah, but instead pointed to the Polish government’s anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968, when Jews who had chosen to live in Poland after the war were systematically fired from their jobs and made to feel that they had no place in the country. More than 20,000 Jews left Poland then, going mainly to Israel and Scandinavia.

It was this Jewish void that left an impression on these filmmakers. What we literally uncover in “Demon” is a lingering dybbuk, a sort of Jewish spirit, that makes its appearance during the wedding festivities, as if to remind all the celebrants that Jews once lived there. The dybbuk in Jewish lore classically takes control of the body of a jilted lover. The first artistic reference to it was “The Dybbuk,” conceived by ethnographer/writer S. Ansky, and originally performed on the Warsaw Yiddish stage in 1920. It has remained one of the great Polish theater classics and it was made into a Yiddish film in 1937. Szymanska points to the influence of that film in “Demon’s” development. Just what does that dybbuk represent? Is the Jew the jilted lover of the Polish people?

Producer Szymanska and director Wrona worked with Israeli producers on this film, the first Polish-Israeli co-production to be filmed in Poland. Israeli actor Itay Tiran, who first drew our attention in Shmuel Maoz’s 2009 “Lebanon,” performs in a language that he does not speak and gives the performance of a lifetime. Agnieszka Zulewska is just as wonderful as the bride left at the altar. Wrona, who died at 42 shortly before the film premiered in Poland, gives us a masterpiece. This is a film with many levels to unravel, and what on its face might be seen as a horror film is a multifaceted portrayal of the mystic Jewish spirit that may not be visible but very much remains in Poland today.

The film is in Polish, English and Yiddish. See it! It opens in New York today.

Eric Goldman teaches and lectures about Jewish cinema and is writing a book on Israeli society seen through the lens of cinema.

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