Each country bears its own cross. There is no history without turbulent passages.
For Poland, one of the most divisive issues still today revolves around the country’s non-Jewish citizens involvement in the Holocaust. Films like Pawel, the Oscar-winning drama Ida and Pasikowski’s Aftermath have picked at this wound and, in turn, had polarizing receptions across the political spectrum.
Using genre as a vehicle to tackle this subject, director Marcin Wrona’s Demon offers demonic possession as a response to the buried past of a small Polish town. A perennial outsider, Piotr or “Pyton” (Itay Tiran) is a British man with Polish roots that arrives in a desolate location to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and, by extension, to her peculiar family as well. However, a horrifying discovery changes the wedding’s course and what seems like a visit from the beyond takes over the festivities. Measured and unassumingly terrifying, Demon was Wrona’s final film; it premiered shortly before the director’s tragic suicide in September 2015.
MovieMaker spoke with Olga Szymanska—producer of the film and wife of the late director—who now speaks on behalf of her and Wrona’s shared vision: of a horror film that simultaneously disturbs and explores a dark passage in Polish history.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Tell us about your initial involvement with Demon and the process of getting the project off the ground.
OS: Marcin and I started a company together and we were looking for a project to make as our first feature together. It was Marcin’s third feature. We saw a theater play that interested us and that dealt with the dybbuk [in Jewish mythology, a malevolent ghost who possesses individuals]. We started working on the adaption of the theater play. It took some time, because the first idea you have when watching something on stage is, “OK, that’s perfect,” and then it turns out that turning it into the movie language is much more difficult. Some things work on stage and don’t work in a movie.
The whole process of writing the script was very long. Marcin had the idea to make it as a horror movie and tackle this story about Polish-Jewish matters in a very accessible way. He wanted to mix these two elements into one movie, which is risky and difficult. In the end it worked out. It balances elements of a horror film, a drama and even black comedy elements, which eases a bit of the tension from the difficult nature of the subject.
MM: Were you aware of the connections between Polish and Jewish folk tales prior to making Demon? Why did you and Marcin feel they provided the right framework for a horror story with historical undertones?
OS: Obviously we had to research. Jewish mysticism was present in Polish culture since the beginning. If you go back to romanticism, it had a huge influence on Polish romantic poets. The Jewish culture has always been present in Poland. The Polish country was established about 1,000 years ago and soon after the first Jews came to Poland. In the past there were lots of Jewish people in Poland, even more than in other countries in Europe. There was a very strong connection between Jews and Poles until World War II. We thought it would be good to remind people how close we were, and our legends and Jewish legends have a lot in common. We thought it would be time to remind people of the dybbuk, because it’s been a long time since the Hassidic version of Romeo and Juliet talked about this—that was the first play that dealt with dybbuk. We thought it would be good to make a modern version of it.
MM: What kind of research did you do to find insight into the legend of the dybbuk, possessions and their place within Jewish culture?
OS: One of the important things that we read was a book about dybbuk possessions in the past century and how the dybbuk was present in Jewish society. It turned out that usually the one who was possessed was a woman. When we were doing the research we didn’t find many cases in which a man was possessed by a dybbuk. We thought, this was the way women expressed the feelings they couldn’t express normally. The possession was usually associated with hysterical behavior.
We thought it would be interesting to do it differently and have Pyton become possessed by Hannah, especially because he was a stranger in Zaneta’s hometown. This would have multiple meanings because of the fact that he is the one being possessed.
MM: At the center of the story there is a secret about the Jewish people that once lived there, a secret that the characters seem to try to bury. Would you say that in Poland people are still reluctant to discuss this part of their history?
OS: It depends on where. On one hand, in the countryside you find places where you can tell there were Jewish people living there by looking at the architecture or the graveyards, but there are no signs of Jews anymore and no one really wants to talk about it. When you see this, you think about how people want to forget or how they have already forgotten. But the new generation wants to talk about it and there are many Jewish festivals and other Jewish cultural projects going on. Last year a beautiful new Jewish museum opened in Warsaw. Things are changing but very slowly. There are still many houses that were abandoned during the war and that were taken by Poles. This is something we wanted to talk about in Demon, but this is something that is still makes some people uncomfortable.
MM: As a producer, how challenging was it to help Marcin find a location that suited his vision while also being practically viable?
OS: Very difficult. We were looking for locations for a long time. First we were looking around Warsaw, then in the north of Poland, and then we got the financing from Krakow, so we started looking there. We couldn’t find the perfect location because it had to be isolated. We needed an old house. We were very close to building the set, but we found the right location three or four weeks before shooting. It was actually perfect: It was in the right region, it was just by the river, and it seemed haunted. It was about one mile from the nearest building so no one was around. The house was abandoned about 30 years ago. It was covered in bushes. They had cut all the bushes and trees around. Next to the house was a ruined barn, so we rebuilt the barn and made it into a set for the wedding.
MM: The wedding seems rooted in Polish traditions but influenced by other sources.
OS: That was the idea, to mix the Polish customs with Jewish traditions. There is a scene where Zaneta throws the glass behind her and he is smashing the glass, like in Jewish weddings. But the whole atmosphere, the dances and most rituals that take place during the wedding, are very much from Polish culture.
MM: Throughout the film it seems as if Zaneta’s family is more concerned about the secret not getting out than what’s actually happening.
OS: They don’t want to reveal it. The thing is, they probably don’t know the details but they are afraid of what’s going on inside Pyton’s mind. They want everything to be perfect and when they see it’s not perfect, they want to bury it. They want to act as if nothing is happening: “Just pour more vodka and drink it up.”
MM: How would you describe the working relationship between Marcin and his lead actor, Itay Tiran? There is vibrant physicality, movement and voice work involved in the performance that is unsettling and admirable.
OS: Itay is just the perfect actor. He’s got this actor sixth sense and knows how to go into the part. I think he was possessed by the movie. He really felt it. We brought him to Poland three times before shooting. During the rehearsals Itay and Marcin talked a lot. We spent a lot of time with Itay. They would work during the day and we spent the evenings together having nice meals, drinking wine, talking about the movie, and getting to know each other. It was a very close relationship. I think Marcin and Itay perfectly understood each other. What they did together was very natural. It was obviously tiring but I think they had the same way of thinking about the movie and about his performances. They did a lot of research and they rehearsed a lot. They had to find the solution to present the possession and they did it perfectly. In terms of the dybbuk dance, and his transformation, it was a long process, because there was a very thin line between making it look foolish or believable.
They first rehearsed with a modern dance choreographer and then with a choreographer from Jewish theater with whom they practiced the movements of his body. A lot of elements come from pantomime, from the stomach, from insight. At the same time, Itay had a strong music background. In the past he had played piano so he had this sense of movement and music, which you can feel when he speaks Polish or Yiddish. In the scene that takes place in the basement, when he starts speaking Yiddish, that’s his voice. He transformed into a woman through his voice, which is absolutely amazing. He has this delicacy in his behaviors and strong emotional intelligence, which I think was very helpful for him since he was doing it without any special effects or any help from the outside.