How does one tell the horrific story of Jews in Poland before and after the Holocaust, if not through a horror film?
That's the logic behind the late Polish director Marcin Wrona's unforgettable final film, Demon, a chilling, eerie cautionary tale about the ghosts that continue to haunt Poland long after the war.
At once a shocking, baroque freak-out and a finely tuned, brilliantly paced surrealist black comedy, Demon is set in a small Polish town at a wedding that's hijacked by the ghost of a Jewish woman killed seven decades earlier.
Wrona was considered one of Poland's greatest young filmmakers when, at age 42, he committed suicide last September, a week after Demon premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. The tragedy held up the film's international distribution.
A Polish-Israeli coproduction, Demon poses a difficult question: How do we define Poland today when we take into account the millions of ghosts that linger there? Ghosts, indeed: Once the epicenter of the Jewish diaspora, Poland was home to 3,474,000 Jews before WWII. Today, they number 3,200.
Considering that Poland was home to some of the Nazis' most prolific death camps, one can't help but imagine that the very ground Poles stand on today covers the bones of murdered people.
The film's minimalist narrative, which was adapted from a 2008 play by Piotr Rowicki, opens with the discovery of some of those bones.
Israeli actor Itay Tiran (Lebanon, The Dead and the Living) stars as Piotr, a young Pole raised in England who returns home to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), the daughter of one of the town's most successful landowners.
Dad (Andrzej Grabowski) - most of the characters are simply identified by their function or social position - has blessed the union by giving the couple the estate house his family once occupied amid the rolling hills, verdant dales, and fresh streams of their farmland.
For Piotr, the place is the very definition of heaven, and he starts renovating the decrepit house the day he arrives. Alas, Piotr's heaven is replaced by hell when his little bulldozer digs up human remains buried deep in the garden.
Then, the wedding kicks off. A wild, daylong affair, it sinks into an absurdist farce when the handsome groom starts acting really, really odd. He talks in a funny language, refers to himself as a woman, and dances a freaky folk dance.
Dad is beside himself: The lavish wedding reception he has bankrolled is the biggest social event the town has seen in decades. What's more, it reinforces his status as the area's most powerful man.
Zaneta is concerned, but determined not to let any weirdness stop her big day.
And most of their guests - the Doctor, the Teacher, the Priest, the Aunt, the Dance Leader agree.
They aren't impressed when an old Jewish guest realizes Piotr has been speaking Yiddish the whole time. They're annoyed, not fascinated, when the old man explains that Piotr has been invaded by a dybbuk, a malevolent being familiar from Jewish folklore.
Who was this woman? How did she die? What does she want from Piotr?
In a chilling turn of events, we realize no one really cares what the ghost is up to. All they want to do is bury the bones again and keep hurtling headlong, drunk, optimistic, content into the future.
Should we begrudge them their hopes and ambitions - even as we realize they're dancing on graves?
Demon may remind some viewers of the 2012 murder mystery Aftermath by Wrona's compatriot Wladyslaw Pasikowski, about two brothers who find a mass grave under their father's home.
Both films ask uncomfortable questions about the effect that past atrocities have on present hopes - questions many of us would rather not contemplate.
sss (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Marcin Wrona. With Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt. Distributed by The Orchard.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
yParent's guide: R (Profanity, sexuality, some nudity).
yPlaying at: Ritz at the Bourse.