If you know the story of Polish director Marcin Wrona, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose student film Magnet Man picked up the Best Student Film Award at 2001's Tribeca Film Festival and whose first two features gathered wide acclaim throughout Europe, then it's hard not to watch his latest film, Demon, without an overwhelming mournfulness and sense of loss. To say that such feelings fit well within Wrona's atmospheric and enveloping film feels almost doubly tragic, almost guilt inducing, as real life meets cinematic life in this indie horror release from The Orchard that is currently on a limited nationwide release around American arthouses and just arrived in my hometown of Indy this weekend.
Wrona, a director of great promise, had just world premiered Demon at TIFF and was at Gdynia's film festival for the film's Polish premiere when he was found hanged to death in his hotel room. Wrona's death was ruled a suicide, a seemingly unexpected end for a man whose latest film was receiving growing acclaim and who had only recently married his co-producer on the film, Olga Szymanska.
I remember a good 25 years ago being a young writer and wannabe theater geek producing my own one-man show at a local university here in Indianapolis. I was a troubled soul writing about troubled things, constantly living on the edge of suicide with a handful of loyal friends surrounding me yet constantly wondering if this would be the day. The night my one-man show opened, my friends would later confess that they secretly wondered if I would end the show, which had a central theme of suicide, by committing the act.
Of course, I didn't.
I thought of those days as I was reflecting upon Demon, though it says much about the film that I didn't think about those days once while actually watching the film. It would be impossible to watch Demon without making connections to Wrona's real life, the film's central character, Piotr (Itay Tiran), seen largely on his wedding day consumed by spirits seemingly real yet possibly imagined. Wrona's own wedding had, of course, been a much quieter affair, a Scottish ceremony devoid of many of the usual Polish rituals and activities.
In the film, Piotr has arrived in Poland to prepare the country estate that his bride-to-be, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), has inherited. The night before the wedding, Piotr unearths human remains, but he chooses to not share with anyone his findings. At the wedding, a typical alcohol-fueled celebration, Piotr descends increasingly into madness and becomes possessed by what appears to be the malevolent dybbuk, or demon, of a young Jewish girl who had been murdered by her Polish neighbors during World War II. To say that this is bold subject matter, especially to be found in an indie horror film out of Poland, is a massive understatement. In a nation where national denial still runs rampant regarding any complicity at all in the persecution of Jews during the war, Demon is sort of a calling up of the past and our accountability to it.
Szymanska, despite her grief over the loss of her husband, or perhaps because of it, has traveled widely in promoting the film and encouraging it to be seen through a balanced lens. It is known that many in Poland worked hard to save Jews from persecution, but then there were those times when self preservation ruled at the cost of individual souls and entire communities.
Filmed in rural Krakow, Demon isn't the type of horror film that is often found to be popular in the U.S., though fans of the more thoughtful, atmospheric side of horror will likely find it a remarkably unique vision and unforgettable experience. Tiran is mesmerizing as Piotr, the known stage actor flailing himself about with the primal urgency of an Iggy Pop in a film that is largely devoid of special effects and techno gimmickry. Demon often exudes a Polanski-like aura about itself, a film that lives into the idea that the greatest horrors may very well be within us. The film feels like the statement of an artist/activist, a director remembering the great diversity of the Poland where he grew up and, just perhaps, a director lamenting the loss of humanity that has lived on long past the war.
Indeed, much of Demon feels like a song of lament, a statement against anti-semitism yet, perhaps achingly so, also a personal surrender lamenting the inevitable.
I would love to serve up simply an objective critical evaluation of Wrona's Demon, but to do so would be an injustice to both myself and to Wrona. It's a beautiful film, emotionally honest and intelligent far beyond what we are used to seeing in the indie horror scene. While fans of the more graphic side of horror are likely to be dissatisfied, Demon is an unforgettable film from a director who should not be forgotten.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic