The Polish drama “Aftermath” comes bearing the label “inspired by true events,” and with press notes stating that “Polish nationals have accused the film of being anti-Polish propaganda as well as a distortion of a sensitive piece of Polish history, leading the film to be banned in some Polish cinemas.”
It is not hard to see why director Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s film has inspired so much debate. (The Hollywood Reporter called it the “most controversial film in the country’s history.”) Its subject – the fate of Jews living in World War II Poland – would make waves anywhere “Aftermath” is shown.
Does the film warrant such intense opinion? Undoubtedly. It tells an involving story, to be sure, albeit in grim, one-note fashion. It is more effective as a history lesson than as drama.
Still, this is a worthy production, and an often gripping study of the lasting effects of the July 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, which saw the murders of more than 300 Polish Jews.
Maciej Stuhr and Ireneusz Czop star as brothers Józef and Franciszek “Franek” Kalina, sons of a poor farmer in central Poland whose lives went in different directions. Franek left home for the United States and severed ties with his family. Only when his brother’s wife arrives in the States is he forced to return home.
The community Franek returns to is fractured and strange. Józef is a paranoid outcast, shunned by the glowering villagers for reasons that soon become chillingly clear.
Józef discovered that a village road was actually paved with the tombstones of long-deceased Jews, and this was not the only spot in which these tombstones could be found. The local church was another.
He took it upon himself to “rescue” the tombstones, moving them to his farm and learning to read the names engraved upon them. The anti-Semites in the community are displeased, as the unearthed headstones betray a startling, devastating truth.
As Franek discovers, 26 Jewish families were executed in the village during World War II, and their land was stolen by many still living in the town, as well as the brothers’ late father. Soon, other disturbing details are unearthed, bringing to light atrocities long forgotten.
This is powerful stuff, and director Pasikowski deserves credit for illuminating this sad history under the guise of a “thriller.” Yet this is also a bit jarring, as an overwrought score, over-the-top acting and vaguely inappropriate thriller tropes often undermine the proceedings. (An unintentionally humorous “chase” involving a tractor just seems silly.)
Still, the revelations are effectively unveiled, the acting from Stuhr and Czop appropriately intense, and the mood nicely dour. It makes for a grim bit of cinema, and that is as it should be.
“Aftermath” also succeeds in piquing the interest of audiences in taking a closer look at a time period many of us do not know well. Perhaps the general details are stored in our memory banks, but is the Jedwabne pogrom common knowledge?
Probably not. And that’s why “Aftermath” is an essential film. As the great Andrzej Wajda (the Polish master behind “A Generation,” “Danton” and “Man of Iron”) said about the film, “Some say it’s best to forget about this, but artists, Polish cinema, we’re here to remind people.”
As a study of a nation’s past and present identity, then, and of the past deeds of some its people, “Aftermath” is certainly effective. It is disturbing, and very grim, but so is the time in history the film seeks to highlight.
Starring: Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Jerzy Radziwiowicz, Zuzana Fialová
Director: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for violence and adult content.
The Lowdown: Two brothers discover that their hometown in Poland was responsible for murdering its Jewish neighbors during World War II. (In Polish with subtitles.)