(Poland 2022; Dir: Jan Bujnowski)

The Devil

Bargaining indulgence

review by Līga Požarska

The Devil

original title: Diabel

length: 19

year of production: 2022

country of production: Poland

director: Jan Bujnowski

production: Lidia Mikulska, Jakub Gogolewski, Tomasz Stefaniak / National Film School in Łódź

director of photography: Kasper Lorek

editing: Olga Bejm, Stanisław Frankowski

sound: Bogdan Klat

music: Bogdan Klat, Jan Bujnowski

cast: Sebastian Pawlak, Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, Waldemar Czyszak, Danuta Borsu

festivals: Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2022, Motovun Film Festival 2022, Bali International Short Film Festival 2022, Riga International Film Festival 2022, Sedicicorto International Film Festival 2022

© images: Diabel (The Devil) (Jan Bujnowski)

Twilight falls upon a remote countryside area. A pair of watchful eyes wait for the right moment. The Devil skulks around the windows of solitary households keenly observing the naïve and the elderly. His goal is to offer them salvation for a reasonably steep price — one that might equal their only savings though. On top of that, he will eat their pickled cucumbers during the negotiations.

Polish filmmaker Jan Bujnowski’s graduation film for the National Film School in Łódź has already had an impressive festival run. In his previous shorts ‘Time Machine’ (2018) and ‘The Crossword’ (2019), he delicately observed peculiar men in their golden years. ‘The Devil’ further expands his fascination with the ‘ordinary’ people leading their seemingly mundane lives, now adding bitter anthropological and sarcastic nuances to the mix.

The film cheerfully plays with the Devil’s representation in mythology, additionally ironizing his remarkable impact on faithful Catholics. Before Christianity, the Devil in Polish mythology was not evil at all. Polish journalist Marek Kępa’s guide of Slavic Demons provides clarity: the Devil’s original version was the forest demon Leszy, who treated people according to their merits. Then the religious colonists messed things up by creating the concept of hell and baptizing the Devil as the ultimate villain. “The demon lost any positive traits it had and became the outright mean-spirited prankster Boruta,” Kępa writes.

In ‘The Devil’, this transformation is taken to a comedic absurdity, rendering the protagonist the caricature of said prankster. His act, while sly and polished, feels a tad awkward. A cheap cape, messy wig and two laughable horns? Ridiculous gunpowder to inflict fear and appear credible? Mr Demon, try a bit harder! Halloween costumes are more advanced these days. Nonetheless, it seems that that charlatan’s routine has worked for him for a while now.
Unlike legendary vile bargains in classical literature, this routine is less crafty and sophisticated. Promising knowledge (Mephistopheles in ‘Faust’), eternal youth (Lord Henry in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’) or peace (Woland in ‘The Master and Margarita’) is not really his game. Paradoxically enough, our fellow Polish Devil excels in exorcism. What Mephistopheles, Lord Henry, Woland and the nameless enchanter have in common is their reinforced sensibility to read people and detect their most fragile fears.

This con artist in question has chosen wisely to exploit religious awe. In 2016, German-Polish journalist and author of the book ‘Where the Devil Lives’, Nadine Wojcik, explained to Deutsche Welle: “Roughly one-hundred-and-thirty exorcists are said to be currently living in Poland. “The Devil lives where the faith is strongest," say the exorcists — and Poland is one of the strongholds of Catholicism. The Devil only comes forward if you fight against him. He, therefore, seems to be particularly ‘active’ in Poland.” This premise accurately outlines what Bujnowski has captured in his film – piety and superstition with a hint of Slavic paganism and playful charlatanism.

Despair and Morality

During the run of the film, the Devil visits two households. It’s all well-rehearsed; an offer to cleanse the house from the evil spirits turns into a conversation about saving souls. This strategy works smoothly until he encounters someone who does not want anything from him.

Take a look at the first victims, a senior couple. The sausage-eating man with a hunting gun and his frightened wife bargain their soul’s worth. The price they are willing to pay is 100 złoty (21,03 euros). Finally, the devil seals the deal for 300 złoty (61,71 euros). His second victim is a lonely granny. Her facial expressions remain indifferent when confronting the intruder in her dining room. She doesn’t mind him crashing the dinner table either. She shares the same table with her deceased husband’s rotting corpse. When the usual offer doesn’t meet the expected enthusiasm, the Exorcist keeps searching for other divine promises and ways to scam the old woman. Perhaps granting the husband a peaceful afterlife and forgiveness will do? No. Her husband used to hit her. The Devil counted his pierogi prematurely (a Polish superstition), none of the offers are of interest to this humble lady. She expects nothing more from life. She’s also not afraid of hell. “I don’t want to go to heaven if I will be alone there.” It’s palpable that the Devil truly respects her and after this meeting he might give up his practice.

Despite these negotiation scenes appearing to be slightly funny, Bujnowski’s film is a sociocritical tragedy disguised as comic relief. The Devil triggers the gullible, the poor and the lonely, but not without compromising his own conscience and moral compass, even if it means commercializing indulgence. Despite clearly seeing the hardships these people have gone through, he proceeds — The Devil must survive too. Hinting towards his daily life and character, we learn that he is a rejected marginal. Maybe a divorcee, a phone call suggests romantic relationships gone south. He might also have lost his job recently, as he can be seen heading to the gas station the morning after his first scam. Turns out that 300 złoty is a price for saving a soul for some, and the value of a full tank for others.

The Anthropology of Emptiness

The film’s synopsis refers to a survey conducted in the nineties, claiming that approximately 95% of Polish people identified themselves as believers. This correlates strongly with the fact that unemployment rates were rising rapidly. It’s not clearly stated whether the film is set in the nineties (The Devil’s car definitely has that vibe), or if the statistics about this period serve as a point of departure. Nonetheless, they provide a vivid economic context and background.
While mere caricatures, these characters act accordingly to their given social environment. The Charlatan feeds on piousness because there is a market for it. Elders are willing to give their last złoty because they believe it's a small price to pay for their souls. Their gullibility correlates with a sense of isolation. Due to the lack of human contact they will easily believe the church, the television, or a kind stranger.

Isolation and the countryside are almost synonyms here; the social background is also visualized. ‘The Devil’ depicts beautiful Polish countryside scenery, where the agricultural lands meet the horizon, while an amber sunset swallows the fields. Each house seems far from the neighboring one. Moreover, the visual background is also the historical one. Following the collapse of the USSR, the political regime and the economic system changed. The elimination of kolkhozes and zavods [1], the rising unemployment rates and the privatization waves transformed the face of the eastern bloc’s countryside. Centralization and urbanization took place and the provinces kept losing young people and farming lands. Dace Dzenovska, a Latvian-born researcher of emptiness in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, writes: “This transitional state is also a lasting one, producing its own material and social dynamics, tensions, and challenges.” The vast emptiness has made a mark on the people inhabiting the countryside.

Surely, it’s difficult to categorically state that the depicted area is without a doubt the borderline of the buzzing civilized world (solely inhabited by retired people), but we cannot ignore the social reality of the time period referenced in the synopsis. The highly religious society and the complicated reality have enabled the existence of such characters as the Devil, the slightly dumb senior couple, the lethargic granny and the wife-beating corpse. It’s a merry comedy for western audiences and a grotesque satire for many Eastern Europeans.

Mirroring Contemporary Poland

With great confidence, Bujnowski plays with the most cliché horror genre and B-film elements (full moon, suspicious music, voyeuristic pair of eyes in the dark, an awkward antagonist) and also doesn’t shy away from miserabilism and dark humor. Amusing details and comic elements generously dilute the abundance of social problems tackled. For example, the granny dining with the decaying body of her violent husband might seem a bit over the top, yet everything in this film is so evident that it becomes a pure farce and an effective commentary on today’s tumultuous Poland.

Yes, Poland has a lot on its plate: refugee crises inflicted by Putin and Lukashenko, the pressure of Russian propaganda and an ever-growing hegemony of the church over politics, bodies and same-sex marriages. The evil in this film might be an impudent con artist, but it’s nothing compared to the pulsating wickedness festering in the Polish Catholic Church and the country’s government. “Evil is attacking Poland,” is an actual statement used to talk about abortion rights. Thereby it doesn’t matter whether the film is set in the 90s or 2022. ‘The Devil’ is a fine mockery of retrograde thinking, uncritical beliefs and blind trust. Ultimately, the nameless Polish Devil is closer to being something between Bulgakov’s Woland and Bujnowski’s ordinary lonely man.

[1] Kolkhoz was a form of a collective farm in the Soviet Union. Zavod were collective factories in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, the general policy of transition from the Soviet centrally planned economy to a market economy was announced, thus rendering kolkhozes and zavods useless. This transformation was marked by raising criminality, blooming corruption, unemployment and an enormous amount of empty buildings. Today, these abandoned factories and agricultural buildings resemble ghost villages.