Demon [subtitled in part]


Demon is a Polish film about a dybbuk (a Jewish ghost that can possess a living person).

I found Demon engaging to a degree, but rather confusing. It isn’t just that some of the story is left mysterious, but also that many mundane points about the context or the setting got past me. (I put it that way, because I’m assuming the points are there, at least in some subtle, implied way, and that the fault is mine in not catching them while trying to keep up with the subtitles and such.)

Piotr, nicknamed “Python,” returns home to Poland from England to get married to Zaneta. Already some of the details of the situation are unclear to me. I get the impression he’s mostly new to the people in this Polish town, that he’s returning “home” in the sense that he’s from Poland but not in the sense that he’s from this specific town in Poland where the movie takes place. Zaneta herself seems not to know him well, so I infer that this has been mostly a long distance relationship. At one point—when things aren’t going well—her father blames one of the other characters (I’m pretty sure her brother, i.e., his son) for introducing them, and he kind of tries to lessen his responsibility by noting that he too barely knows the guy so it’s not like he endorsed him.

Since it’s the story of a dybbuk, I was assuming these would be Jewish folks, but I don’t think they are. So even that extremely basic point isn’t clear to me. I mean, some of the wedding music strikes me as Jewish, though I could be wrong, and some of the guests—especially the old professor guy—seem to be Jewish, but most of the main people in the wedding party don’t seem Jewish, and the service is conducted not by a rabbi but by a priest.

I suppose a dybbuk in principle could possess anybody, but I think the artistic convention is that these things typically stay within their culture. Like I would have expected Satan or some demon sent by Satan to handle the possessing of a Catholic. But apparently not.

Anyway, Piotr is exploring the grounds of the land his bride’s family owns, which is where the wedding is taking place and evidently where they’re going to live in some kind of restored farmhouse or something, and he stumbles upon a corpse or skeleton. (To be honest, I couldn’t make out anything in the split second or whatever that it was shown on the screen, but I knew from descriptions I had read of the film going in that that’s what he finds.)

For the time being he decides to keep his mouth shut about his discovery, though it certainly leaves him preoccupied, as well as anxious whenever there’s a risk someone else will find the skeleton where he hastily covered it up.

His mood and overall stability are not helped by the fact that subsequently on two or three occasions he hears voices or sees in the distance a mysterious girl lurking.

The wedding evidently is a multi-day affair. They get married fairly early, but then there’s partying for I think at least another day or two. The main activity at a traditional Polish wedding seems to be to for everyone to consume as much alcohol as they’re capable of consuming.

Though mostly their consumption of mass quantities puts everyone in a good mood, there are two factors that put something of a damper on things. One, there’s a torrential downpour for much of this period. Two, Piotr acts more and more peculiarly.

At first it’s just a matter of his being distraught over finding a dead body and keeping it secret, as well as seeing a ghost, but at some point it apparently crosses the line to where he’s also possessed in some supernatural way by the ghost.

Some of it the people at the wedding can explain away as the jitters of a groom. Then their theories escalate to epilepsy or some kind of mental illness. Those who are monitoring the situation most closely—primarily the bride’s family; they’re trying to keep the other guests from realizing how bad the groom is getting—eventually figure out that all his writhing around and screaming and babbling in a language they don’t recognize (that turns out to be Yiddish) are indicative of something a lot more alarming than epilepsy.

The old professor realizes in talking to the groom—or talking to the dybbuk possessing the groom—that he is being possessed by a girl the professor knew and was fond of in his youth, a local girl, a beautiful and popular girl who mysteriously disappeared one day. Evidently she died in a way that left her spirit unable to obtain rest, and so she is still hovering around the area making trouble. Though truth be told, in the little we get to know her she seems more confused than malevolent.

Broadly speaking, my take on Demon is that it is fairly interesting on a symbolic level, but mostly doesn’t succeed on any other level.

That is, the most intriguing thing about Demon is thinking about what it’s all supposed to mean. I take it the idea is that the ghost girl represents Poland’s Jews. And the way the wedding party deals with the discovery of her body and her possession of the groom and such symbolizes how the Polish people have dealt with the Holocaust.

Mostly the people in the movie just want to get drunk and enjoy themselves and not deal with the past. If something unpleasant forces its way into their consciousness, their instinct is to suppress it, not deal with it.

Hence, Piotr reburies the skeleton he finds. Zaneta’s family covers up any evidence that anything has gone wrong with the wedding or with the groom. When it’s clear that the situation is more extreme than they’d realized, the father announces that they can have the marriage annulled, i.e., they can go back and make it so that this wedding that dozens of people witnessed with their own eyes didn’t really happen.

In fact, he takes that even farther later, giving a sort of speech to the assembled guests at the end, rambling about how really this whole thing has been a dream. Not just that the rumors about the groom’s antics and the explanation for his behavior were false or exaggerated, but that the whole occasion is something they imagined. There never was a groom; there never was a wedding.

When things don’t work out as intended, send the events down the memory hole so that they never happened.

Actually one of the more striking instances of being uncomfortable with the past occurs when the old professor is invited up as one of the speakers to toast or give a little talk about the couple, and in a kind of stumbling, emotional way, he urges everyone to somehow fit the joy of the occasion with an acceptance of the tragedy that it’s all taking place on the site of such horrible atrocities not so long ago. Remember and honor the past is his message, while still trying to build the best present and future lives.

But the bride’s father and others, as soon as they realize where he is headed, quickly hustle him off the stage—“Oh thank you, professor! Such kind and wise words, professor! But we’re short on time and so many other people want to speak…”—that kind of thing.

Not that the “ignorance is bliss, so let’s be as ignorant as possible of anything unpleasant” attitude is universal, just like in real life there are some people who want to know what happened as far as the Holocaust or whatever else other people want to leave safely in the past. Zaneta, for instance, very much wants to know what’s going on with Piotr, and she reacts with horror at the suggestion that they should just have the marriage annulled and treat the matter as if they can reverse course to before all this unpleasantness happened and take a different road instead.

But certainly the most common reaction of the Poles is to not honestly confront the facts.

That’s all interesting stuff to contemplate. How do you acknowledge the past without being tied down by it? How long do you have to wait after the Holocaust before you can sing and dance and be free-spirited and fall in love and get drunk and such? How do you determine who is responsible for such unimaginable evil and how do you punish them, and then when and how do you move on from that?

I just don’t feel like the symbols were embedded in much of a movie. It’s sort of a horror movie, but it’s never scary or more than a little suspenseful. I’ve seen it described as a black comedy, but there’s really not much to laugh at here as far as I’m concerned. It’s just not that interesting a story overall, and as I’ve said, I also found too many basic elements of it confusing.

A movie can have a terrific, entertaining, emotionally moving story, and also have plenty to say symbolically; it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Lord of the Flies, for example. If you had no clue that they were about anything other than a nuthouse or kids stranded on an island, you could still really enjoy those movies. There just happens to be other stuff going on too, if you choose to approach them that way and look beneath the surface.

But Demon isn’t that kind of movie. It has some interesting things to say as far as symbolism, but on the surface level of its story it’s more of a dud than not.