Dybbuk or black holes of memory. “Demon” by Marcin Wrona

Updated: Jun 6

//Svetlana Pakhomova//

"Dybuk"* is one of the most entrancing subject of the Jewish literature of the 20th century. Semion Akimych An-sky (Shlomo-Zainvl Rapoport) who lived between 1863-1920 signed such play. An-sky was a passionate and controversial individual. He was journalist, writer, ethnographer and revolutionary propagandist. He left a valuable contribution in each area where he worked. However, his character is truly unique for Jewish ethnography. He initiated a Jewish ethnographic expedition to the places of the Southwestern Territory of the Russian Empire in 1912 – 1914. Based on such expedition An-sky wrote the play "Between Two Worlds" ("Dybuk"). An-sky observed one melodramatic case in small Jewish town of Podolia (territory of modern Ukraine) and put it into the play’s subject adding folklore elements, the mysticism of Hasidic traditions, social and political agenda. As result, he created the solid story how children pay for sins and mistakes of their parents.

Jewish demonology is extremely diverse: it starts from the Angel of Death and the insidious seductress Lilith to the prosaic bogie-men. However, An-sky was interested in the dybuk - an evil spirit that obsesses into a person, controls its soul and speaks through his mouth. An-sky started working on the play in 1913, finished the Russian version in 1915 and completed the canonical Yiddish version of the play in 1919. "Dybuk" had a happy theatrical fate and the most famous version of the play is performance in Hebrew of the "Habima" theater in 1922, directed by Evgeny Vakhtangov. The Polish director with Jewish roots Michal Wasinski (Moshe Waks, 1904 - 1965) staged the premiere of the film "Dybuk" on September 25, 1937. Comparing to other Yiddish movies made in pre-war Poland, Dybuk attracted the attention of a non-Jewish audience. The film was even shown in city cinemas with Polish subtitles.

In the 2000s, interest in the scene of "Dybuk" manifests with renewed power - from endless horror to ironic retro reflections of Coen Brothers. The Demon by the ethnic Polish Marcin Wrona created in 2015 became one of the unexpected and even provocative cinematic version of the An-sky’s play and the Wasinski’ s pre-war movie.

The subject of the Demon take place in modern Poland, in a former Jewish town. Payton (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) arrives in a small Polish town from London for an own marriage. Coming ashore from the ferry (the only way to connect the town with the rest of the country after the Germans destroyed the bridge here during the war), the bride's relatives rename Payton to Peter and accommodate him in an old house, which should become a dowry for the young. While Janet, Peter's bride, prepares for the wedding, Peter investigates the house, in which a huge number of traces of the former owners, a Jewish family. In addition, he found human remains in the garden.

Later, such remains suddenly disappeared and Peter desperately tries to uncover the truth about this house, former and current owners. The entire space of the town turns into a habitation for restless souls, and one of them, named Hana, obsesses into Peter during the wedding. The ecstatic movements of the hero are followed by no less tangible changes. Peter suddenly starts talking in using foreign language that incomprehensible to anyone, except for the only Jew who survived after the war. It was Yiddish.

"Demon" became a film adaptation of the play "Reincarnation" by the contemporary Polish playwright Piotr Rowicki. Interestingly, the author was not involved in the scenario creation (it was written directly by Wrona together with other famous director Pawel Maslona). At first glance, the filmmakers "melodramatized" Roginsky’s subject. Strong love story allowed Wrona to enter into a direct dialogue with the "Dybuk" of Wasinski and, to some extent, with An-sky. "The Demon" is a very important voice in leading recent discussions about the problems of memory and working with the historical past. Wrona's changes to Rowicki’s play, the fusion with Dybuk, and certain imagery in the film confirm that the authors were concerned about how past events affected the present. Is it possible to “correct” or completely erase the past, to get away from feelings of national guilt and responsibility, right historical wrong, prudently destroying the traces of alien presence into it?

Newly made Peter’s relatives close him in a basement because spirit of Hana obsessed into him hoping that the old school teacher will be able to find a common language with the dybuk. With difficulty extracting Yiddish words and memories of pre-war life from consciousness, the teacher is unable to tame the past. He can only give the right to vote at present, acting as a translator from Yiddish into Polish.

As in An-sky/ Wasinski’ s Dybuk, the world of the dead holds a symbolic victory over the world of people. Remaining traces of past is destroyed. In the finale, we see Janet on the ferry, leaving the town forever. And if now a Jewish dybuk can obsess into a Polish, then the Polish can begin in an eternally wandering, homeless Jew.

The perception of the film in Poland was influenced by the tragic fate of Marcin Wrona, who died inexplicably during the festival in Gdynia, where the Polish premiere of The Demon took place. The most common, but not the only, version of what happened is the director's suicide in the hotel room where he lived at the festival. The striking intersection of fiction and reality, the age-old subject and new interpretations knocks the ground out from under the viewer's feet, but it seems that this is exactly how a film about doom to remember and a passionate desire to forget should be.

* In various modern publications, there are two spellings of the name of the play - "Dybuk" and "Dybbuk". Most of the recent works on the play in Russian use the spelling with a single "d". In this text, this particular spelling of the name of a play, film, character of Jewish folklore, etc. will be used.

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