Jul. 26th, 2017

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Some time back—you'll notice that a lot of my reviews start like this—Marcin Wrona's final film Demon turned up On Demand, and I watched it; I definitely wouldn't have been able to see it otherwise, considering that it still somehow hasn't gotten a Region One DVD/Blu-Ray release. At any rate, it's an amazing piece of work. The demon in question is actually a dybbuk, accidentally conjured when a young Polish-British man—Piotr, who's come to Poland to marry Zaneta, his Polish fiancee—wanders outside the family farmhouse he's vowed to restore for her the night before their wedding, only to fall headlong into a sinkhole that proves to be a not particularly well covered-up mass grave.

In the morning, he's slightly ill and disconnected, but no more so than anybody else who got roaring drunk at their own bachelor party. The wedding proceeds as planned, getting steadily wilder and odder, until at last a beautiful young woman no one else seems to see enters the repurposed barn they're using as a festival hall, walks straight up to the groom and kisses him on the lips before disappearing. He immediately goes into spasms and begins to act as though he's lost his mind, weeping and raving in Yiddish, accusing his father-in-law of long-forgotten war crimes. The increasingly off-put wedding guests collude with the bride's family to cover this up until, eventually, Piotr simply disappears, leaving nothing behind but his widowed bride and an open mystery nobody actually probably finds all that mysterious, in historical context: “What we thought we took part in, we merely dreamed. There was never even a bridegroom.”

Though my husband was a bit dismayed by the film's apparent final open-endedness, I came into it having seen a lot of other films about that same sort of deep post-Holocaust social guilt, the deliberate dismissal of memory—the Pact of Forgetting, as survivors of the Spanish Civil War call it. Thus, I know that these are stories built around lacunae, the filled-in historical holes that tell you exactly what sort of horror your current life is built on top of. You really don't need it all spelled out: "Did [Zaneta's] grandfather build the house?" The groom asks, to which his prospective brother-in-law replies: "Oh, it was already here." The skipped-over question provides its own answer: someone else built the house, someone else owned it, but where are they now? Hana—the dybbuk—married the Polish boy who forgot her essential Otherness long enough to love her, and it was the end of both of them; now she doesn't even have a tombstone, let alone the bridegroom she was promised, so her unspoken presence constantly eddies back and forth like weed under the same lake Piotr's new relatives eventually dump his Range Rover into, re-erased again and again by the people who profited most directly from her murder.

And it really doesn't matter that Zaneta's father was probably only a child when all this happened, that he maybe truly doesn't know the details of his father's crimes, because his sheer devotion to destroying any lingering remnant of the world old Professor Shimon (sole survivor of an era when the town was half-Jewish) cries over—the one where even Orthodox Christians and Catholics wanted the local tzaddik's blessing—is enough to pull him and all his blood down, so much so that the only thing Zaneta can eventually do is simply leave her own home forever, take what little's left of Piotr back to the U.K., and start over. "This whole country's built on corpses!" As one guest blurts out. Or then there's the sentiment echoed by that one drunk guy, monologizing: "Once Poland was everywhere, it was as big as the world, it was peaceful and beautiful, everyone was Polish. But then evil ghosts came, and the land was split—first the Germans, then the Russians, then Israel!" Such a very shallow amount of dirt to scratch through before the blood and the prejudice seep up. It's horribly relevant, both generally and in specific.

I think more than anything else it's less the willful non-ending—Zaneta reborn as Piotr, wearing his jacket and making the same journey, becoming a stranger from Away—than the sense of resounding, un-fillable guilt that you get in so many movies from those areas, this sense of saturation as pollution: Europe is all so crushed together, and you've got genocides on top of genocides almost everywhere you look; someplace has always been someplace else, every green field is a ploughed-over grave. There's holes under every landscape. When I was still reviewing films, I saw a lot of stuff from the Balkans, starting with Before the Rain by Milcho Manchevski (the guy who managed to get himself bounced off of Ravenous in pre-production, opening it up for Antonia Bird), which has a literally circular motion; the three parts lead into each other, then braid and repeat, like a cycle that can never be broken. Tribalism overlays everything like radiation, like a gun you bury on to watch your children dig it up again, try to use it and blow their own hands off.

But what makes Demon so interesting is that most of these movies are about the acts, the events, not their fallout—they feel like they have to show them in full, accurate, terrible detail, just to be able to make you understand what they're talking about. Demon, however, knows that an empty hole is worse than any mass murder scene, and seeing people you love lie about these things having happened at all can be just as bad as seeing the things themselves happen...not worse per se, but a very different sort of pain. Weirdly enough, one of the few Hollywood films that ended up having a similar impact on me was Costa-Gavras's Music Box, from a Joe Eszterhas screenplay, which has Jessica Lange figuring out that her beloved father is an uncaught Hungarian war criminal—it's not exactly subtle, but it puts the point across that just because you love people and they love you, that doesn't in the least prevent them from being guilty and you from being equally so by association. (A lot of films from Argentina and other parts of South America play out very similar cycles of horror vs. erasure, as well as from Spain, while the U.S. has 12 Years A Slave and Beloved vs. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The New World, but not enough of either, and far too many times told through white people's eyes, as though the mere testimony of the people who actually suffered through these deliberate genocides can never be enough.)

Retroactive amnesia is exactly what Zaneta's father is trying to sell his wedding guests, even though the shot of them staggering home past (someone else's) funeral procession after Piotr's disappearance gives the lie to it. There's just this basic human impulse to cover things up and "agree" to forget, connectedly intimately to the knowledge that if you allow people to remember these horrifying spasms of Othering violence, the cycle of revenge will never, ever stop. People reduced to bone fragments; people reduced to ashes; people reduced to rooms full of hair. We really are awful animals.

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