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DRE #444020

Film Review


The mythical dybbuk has been a staple of Eastern European Jewish culture since the 17th century. According to the Kabbalists, a mystical branch of Judaism, a dybbuk is the spirit of a dead person, who takes possession of a living being, usually a woman. As in the case with Christian possession, the possessed speaks in the voice of the spirit and is driven to do strange and generally evil things. Only a true holy man, a tzaddik, can exorcise the dybbuk. The myth of the dybbuk would probably have disappeared except for a Yiddish play, The Dybbuk (1914), written by a Russian playwright, S. Ansky, and followed nearly a quarter of a century later by a film of the same name. This became one of the best known Yiddish plays in America.

Eastern European Jewish culture was ended by the Holocaust. Poland, more than any other country, was the site of many of the death camps during WW II. Auschwitz and Treblinka, to name only two, were set up in Poland by the Nazis because half of the European Jews lived in Poland. The Nazis murdered over 3 million Polish Jews, 90% of Poland's Jews, in addition to another 3 million Jews from other countries. Some Poles helped hide and rescue Jews, but Poland was historically very anti-Semitic and many Poles assisted the Germans in revealing hidden Jews. That said, it should never be forgotten that the death camps were conceived, built, and operated by the Germans. Today Poland has very few Jews. Ironically, there are attempts to celebrate Poland's Jewish heritage including a well endowed Jewish Museum which was recently opened on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Marcin Wrona, a young Polish filmmaker, had just completed his film about the legend of the dybbuk, entitled Demon, which screened to good reviews, when he suddenly killed himself last year. I could only find brief accounts of his suicide, which was attributed to stress and alcohol. Was this related to the dark background of his film? Who knows? Wrona sets the story in contemporary Poland. His film opens with a prolonged shot of a backhoe driving through a small, seemingly deserted village, to an isolated house. Peter, a handsome young man from England, has come to Poland to marry the daughter of the owner of a large rock quarry. He speaks basic Polish and seems to have not known her very long. He made friends with her brother in England. The bride's family is giving the couple a derelict house in the country, once owned by the bride's grandfather. The couple intends to renovate the cottage and the parents have outfitted a barn on the property for the wedding. Peter is operating a backhoe to clear some brush near the barn when he uncovers what he thinks is a human skeleton. He tells the brother about the skeleton but no one else sees it. Peter soon begins to hallucinate, seeing himself sinking into the mud and envisioning a ghostly woman named Hana. Although he pulls himself together for the wedding, he soon begins to act strangely. The story continues, but along quite unexpected lines.

So much of the film takes place at night that the film seems essentially black and white. The cinematography is excellent with many haunting (in every sense!) scenes. The acting is uniformly fine, with a talented Israeli actor playing Peter. All the other actors are Polish. The film is subtitled as most of the dialogue is Polish and Yiddish. Tension builds with an increasing sense of menace, showing brief but continual traces of a vanished world. The Holocaust is really the hidden background of Demon. It is the memory of this world and the Polish collusion in its disappearance that the bride's family- and many other Poles- are trying to erase. These glimpses give the film much of its power, although excellent acting deserves equal credit. The score, rife with Polish and Yiddish folk tunes, is at times eerie, as appropriate, I loved Demon, for all its darkness, and think it will become a classic. Interestingly, two other fine films about the Holocaust in Poland have also recently screened: Ida and The Innocents.

In the Bay Area, Demon seems to be playing only at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, which means it will not stay very long. Try not to miss this gem. Running time: 94 minutes.

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