by Matt Levine
In July 1941, in the tranquil town of Jedwabne, Poland, over 340 Jews were executed—marched to an empty barn in the corner of the village, locked inside, and burned alive by Nazi soldiers. Or so read the initial historical account, one of many shocking subplots in the unthinkable horror of the Holocaust—a tale which maintained the villainy of the German occupiers and the victimization of the native Poles. Sixty years later, however, a new investigation was conducted which led to a ghastly discovery: it was not the Nazis who liquidated this Jewish community (which had occupied Jedwabne since the 18th century), but their Polish Christian neighbors, who butchered their countrymen with the sanction of the German army. This 2003 discovery was the impetus for Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath, a willfully incendiary film that took seven years to finance (unsurprisingly) and has garnered wildly divisive reactions in Poland. Given such a solemn historical episode and Pasikowski’s palpable outrage at his country’s legacy of evil, it makes sense that Aftermath is almost entirely devoid of subtlety and levity—though such a simplistic tone hampers the film nonetheless.
Thursday, April 10, 7:00pm
Wednesday, April 16, 5:10pm
Director: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Producers: Dariusz Jablonski, Violetta Kaminska
Writer: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Cinematographer: Pawel Edelman
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Cast: Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szaflarska, Zuzana Fialová, Wojciech Zielinski, Andrzej Mastalerz, Ryszard Ronczewski, Jan Jurewicz, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska
Premiere: May 11, 2012 – Gdynia Film Festival
US Distributor: Menemsha Films
The story follows Chicago transplant Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop), who emigrated from his fictional village of Gurówka two decades prior and returns home to visit his estranged brother Józef (Maciej Stuhr). Józef has turned the entire town against him by digging up Jewish gravestones which were used as roads and construction tools by the townspeople; he intends to create a proper cemetery in his family’s wheat fields. This is only the beginning of the travesties that the Kalina brothers uncover, however, as Franciszek is involuntarily roped into Józef’s compassionate quest. You have to give Aftermath credit for sticking to its convictions: practically every character is ultimately revealed to seethe with anti-Semitic hostility (including our protagonist, Franciszek), and it’s no surprise that the movie’s furious “we’re not the victims but the perpetrators!” wail infuriated some Polish viewers. (Several politicians denounced the film and a number of towns banned it from theaters, while one prominent right-wing newspaper deemed it “mendacious and harmful for Poles.”) Unfortunately, though, the villagers are such a one-note crew of rugged, bloodthirsty, pitchfork-waving bigots that it’s hard to take the movie seriously as either social commentary or a psychological analysis of intolerance and evil. Aftermath turns a hideous and controversial tragedy from Poland’s past into fodder for a pessimistic thriller, but at least it excels in that regard: the film’s moody cinematography and enigmatic plotting are undeniably engrossing, with several tense and well-crafted scenes (especially an uncontrollable fire on the Kalinas’ farm, which the town’s fire department pointedly ignores). One only wishes that such a compelling film ushered us towards something more honest or resonant than the fleeting genre thrills Aftermath provides.