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'Aftermath' Dares to Unearth Terrible Secrets of Poland's Lost Jews

Aftermath Film Still High - H 2013
Maciej Stuhr, left, and Ireneusz Czop in 'Aftermath'

The most controversial film in the country's history lands stateside on Nov. 1.

On July 10, 1941, half the residents of Jedwabne, a Polish village 85 miles northeast of Warsaw, murdered the other half. The mob, led by the mayor, were Catholics; their 1,600 victims were Jewish, slaughtered over several nightmarish hours with bats, knives, rifles and other improvised weapons. Those who survived the massacre were then rounded up in a barn donated by a local farmer, which was then set ablaze. A plaque erected at the site blamed Nazis for the massacre, but, in fact, Nazis had only authorized it. Locals walked by the plaque for half a century, knowing the truth, but saying nothing.

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Jedwabne's terrible secrets were at last laid bare in Neighbors, an explosive account of the massacre by Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross. That 2001 book shattered carefully held myths, promulgated by Communist leaders, that Poles were only victims of World War II, not perpetrators. (Poles -- who unlike many European countries never officially collaborated with the Nazis -- lost close to 6 million citizens to the Nazis, or about 17 percent of the population. Just over half of those were Jewish.) Now, 12 years later, comes Aftermath -- premiering stateside Nov. 1.

It's a film inspired by Jedwabne that has forced the country to once again face certain unthinkable aspects of its past. Since its October 2012 premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival, the movie has been a lightning rod. Major news outlets have dismissed it as anti-Polish propaganda, its non-Jewish star Maciej Stuhr has been the target of vicious anti-Semitic attacks, and its producer says he has been blacklisted by the country's national film council.

That producer, Dariusz Jablonski, was first approached with the script in 2004 by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, an established director of action movies. Pasikowski's script takes place entirely in present-day Poland, and follows two brothers as they uncover what befell the Jews living in their small town, where anti-Jewish attitudes persist. Pasikowski, who is not Jewish, wrote the script after reading Neighbors, which left him feeling helpless, angry and like an unwitting accomplice to an institutionalized cover-up.

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"But a book is nothing compared to the power of a feature film," says Jablonski, who was instantly gripped by the power and efficiency of Pasikowski's storytelling. His first step was to bring the project to the Polish Film Institute, an office founded in 2005 and dedicated to nurturing films that celebrate Polish culture. The fund found the taboo project "anti-Polish," Jablonski says, not because the claims made in it were deemed untrue, but because it chose to overlook acts of Polish heroism and compassion shown toward Jews during the war. In other words, Aftermath was not a Polish Schindler's List. Jablonski adds that PFI also objected to the image of the present-day village, inhabited by anti-Jewish thugs and locals who conspired to keep the truth literally buried. "They said this wasn't the truth about Poland, but unfortunately, I didn't agree," Jablonski says. "I know these kind of villages; I know these kind of people."

(Jerzy Bart, the institute's deputy director for economic, organizational and legal issues, remembers it differently. Bart says PFI found the topic of the film "very important," and points to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, which this year has won awards at film festivals in Toronto, Warsaw and London, as another example of a difficult film about Poland during the Holocaust that was funded by the institute.)

Undaunted, the team spent the next seven years getting the script in the hands of anyone -- politicians, actors, producers, investors -- who might help them get it made. While opposition among nationalists mounted, the project found vocal support, too, most visibly within the centrist press. The groundswell eventually led the Polish Film Institute to reverse its decision. Jablonski then scoured Europe, securing backers in Russia, Slovakia and the Netherlands, each of whom contributed 10 percent of production costs. With the full budget finally in place, the call went out to an A-list production team of Polish nationals who had expressed interest over the years -- including production designer Allan Starski, an Oscar winner for Schindler's List, and cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who shot The Ghostwriter and The Pianist for Roman Polanski

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Stuhr, the son of famed Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr, was best-known for his comedic work prior to Aftermath. He'd been a fan of the project since first reading the script in 2004, and when filming began seven years later, he was the perfect age to play younger brother Jozef, who sets the plot in motion by retrieving Jewish gravestones used by villagers as paving stones and erecting a makeshift cemetery on his father's land. 

While he never seriously feared for his safety, Stuhr says the nationwide controversy that swirled around the film's premiere was a trying time for him. "They were calling for me to get a one-way ticket out of Poland immediately," Stuhr recalls. "The right-wing journalists were ruthless about me." Jablonski read the climate as far more threatening: "I realized then that he was in physical danger. So many web pages with our pictures, saying, 'These people need to be hanged.' " He says he was particularly disturbed by an issue of Wprost, a mainstream news magazine, which provocatively splayed Stuhr's photo on its cover along with anti-Semitic graffiti and the headline, "Lynched at his own request."  Inside, an editorial entitled, "Stuhr, You Jew!" detailed the wave of racist backlash that the actor had faced. While it didn't endorse the anti-Semitic sentiments, the piece ultimately sided against the star: "He has become a symbol of simplicity and manipulating history for commercial gain," wrote its author, Magdalena Rigamonti.

"What was written inside the magazine was worse [than the cover], a load of lies," Stuhr says. "The reviewer wrote that it was the end of my career." Stuhr, whose work in Aftermath earned him the Polish Film Award for best actor, says Rigamonti's prediction hasn't yet come to pass: "I'm still very busy with work. The Polish film community has given me a lot of support, and I think I've scored plenty of points here."

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Jablonski, on the other hand, says he still feels the effects of the backlash, particularly from the Polish Film Institute, which he says is seeking a full repayment of their funds. PFI counters that Jablonski violated the terms of their agreement by attaching foreign producers without their approval, and has prohibited him from applying for further funding for the next three years. Both parties are in the process of settling their differences in court.

 

"The producer...broke the terms of the agreement for co-financing the production of the film...and has failed to account for the public funds received from the Polish Film Institute," Bart says. "This left the Polish Film Institute no choice but to withdraw from the agreement with Apple Film Production Ltd. and to submit the case to court." 

Presented by Menemsha Films,  Aftermath premieres in New York on Nov. 1, and in Los Angeles on Nov. 15.