What happens when a director takes his own life before he’s able to see his work open in theaters? In the case of Marcin Wrona and Demon, his mesmerizing Polish art-horror film, Olga Szymanska, Wrona’s producing partner and wife, has pressed on. She has traveled with the film, watching the movie over and over, talking at length about her husband’s intentions and dutifully enduring Q&As in which she will inevitably be on the receiving end of the question: Why? With such a bright future, with so supportive and intelligent a new wife and partner, with a film just coming out — a brilliant genre-bender replete with indelible performances and dry humor and humanity — why would someone leave all that behind?
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Szymanska says. She pauses often, preparing her words in English, but she's still remarkably open and composed when she speaks of Wrona. “He was a closed-off kind of person. He was very focused on work, but he really was a cheerful person, too.”
Even without the personal tragedy, Demon features its share of difficult themes. The film follows a seemingly joyful man, Piotr (Itay Tiran), preparing the country home his lovely bride-to-be, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), has inherited. The night before the nuptials, Piotr unearths human remains on the property, but he tells no one. At the wedding itself, as the night wears on, he descends into a kind of madness, his body possessed by the malevolent spirit (or dybbuk) of a Jewish girl killed by her Polish neighbors in World War II. The figure of the murdered girl is a daring element for a feature to depict, as Poland still encourages denial about its citizens’ complicity in the Holocaust.
“Poland suffered a lot during the Second World War,” Szymanska says, “but the uncomfortable truth is that [Poland] said almost the whole village of Jedwabne was killed by Nazis, but it turned out that people from the village actually burned the barn with the Jews kept inside. And at the same time, there were many Poles saving Jewish lives, so I think we need to remember both — the positive and the negative. We shouldn’t reject the past.”
This is a philosophy Szymanska and Wrona shared, and one she abides by as she discusses her late husband. Szymanska recognizes the importance of acknowledging this loss in her life, but she channels her energy into promoting this last film they made together, which is equal parts unnerving, entrancing, torturously sad and still sometimes flat-out hilarious, exactly when comic relief is needed. But Demon, which Wrona saw premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, can’t help but reflect the personal: While early critics said nice things, they were dumbfounded by what they perceived as an illogical premise: Why would Piotr not tell the people he loves about what he has uncovered — and, later, about what's happening to him?
The question lingers over both the film — Piotr doesn’t talk about the bones, just as the Poles who killed their Jewish neighbors remained silent — and Wrona’s real life. Watching Demon, it’s difficult to remove Wrona’s backstory from the movie’s context. Szymanska says she can see him everywhere in the film, from the cinematography to the costuming — the protagonist wears the same black leather jacket Wrona did. But, for her, drawing parallels between the fictional and the personal is off-limits.
“I think the movie itself has its own life, and I’m trying not to get into the context too much. Otherwise I could get crazy,” she says. “I treat it as something which is finished, but still like a child. And the child needs to be taken care of.”
This “child” was filmed in a rural area of Krakow after months spent looking for a proper location — a place that felt, well, haunted by its past. The house and barn featured in the film, built in 1890, are just that. Inside the house, crumbling plaster walls reveal the brick beneath, while a tall, expansive ceiling with huge exposed wood beams frames the barn. Along the property, a thick mist rises over bluffs, with the distant sound of running water. “The funny thing about the mists is they were real,” Szymanska marvels, recounting how eerie the place seemed on her first visit.
These wide-open layouts directly informed Wrona’s choice to keep the camera panning and roaming, following, for instance, one character moving through the raucous wedding party and then another entering the cellar, where a possessed Piotr is detained by a few guests: There's the doctor who ponders spirituality; the old professor who converses in Yiddish with Piotr’s spectral captor; the bride’s father, already working on getting the two-hour marriage annulled; a priest who just wants to go home (and definitely does not want to perform an exorcism); and the bride, who looks on helplessly as the man she loves is overtaken by something she will never understand.
The choice to set the story amid a wedding ties directly to Polish cultural traditions; Szymanska says it’s common for weddings to carry on for up to four days, with guests drinking and eating and dancing and drinking some more, often devolving into a temporary, communal insanity. “There’s much alcohol — it cuts the stress of meeting new people,” Szymanska says. “And when they are in this atmosphere, it’s difficult to tell who is the crazy one. Is Piotr crazy? Or is the father who does not believe him?” Szymanska and Wrona themselves had just gotten married but had avoided the usual traditions, escaping to Scotland for a quiet ceremony.
Wrona illuminates the thin, taut line between elation and madness and the crossing over from one to the other. As the doomed groom, Tiran, an Israeli actor, delivers a breathtaking physical performance that took weeks of choreography work with a master of pantomime from Warsaw’s historic Jewish Theatre. As Tiran bends backward in the throes of possession, craning his neck at impossible angles, swinging his arms out wide, he’s grotesque. Szymanska says they shot one particular dance scene for hours, just letting Tiran go on.
Wrona grew up in Tarnow, a city whose population was roughly 50% Jewish before the war — after it, only 700 came back, and most of those relocated to Israel. Despite Demon's bearing the label of a horror film, there’s a strong activist bent.
“It was more important for us to make a movie about remembering who we were and how Poland looked like before the war,” Szymanska says. “We had Gypsies, Ukrainians, Jews — it was a multicultural country, and after the war, something happened. Our government right now doesn’t want any immigrants coming into Poland.”
This year, Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo declared that the country would not be taking in any refugees. In Warsaw, a large rainbow sculpture installation was repeatedly set ablaze by anti-LGBTQ goons (it was rebuilt each time after, until the rebuilding became too much of a hassle). The Jewish Theatre was shut down in June. A 2013 Warsaw University poll found that 63% of Poles believe there’s a Jewish conspiracy to take over banking and media; 90% of Poles say they have never in their lives met a Jew.
In so many ways, Demon has become more than just a beautifully executed, original horror film. It’s a statement on anti-Semitism, on remembering and on the ways our bodies and minds can betray us. But it’s also a goodbye, an I love you, an I’m sorry.
“There will always be a question mark,” Szymanska says. “You will never get the answer to the question — what happened, why it happened. There’s something that he took with him. Even though I would give everything to know what happened, I know that I will not have the opportunity to know it, but this life ... it’s about not forgetting, and it’s also trying to live with what you will never know.”