Aftermath (Poklosie): Film Review

Aftermath Film Still High - H 2013

Aftermath Film Still High - H 2013

The affecting, well-conceived story explores collectively repressed Holocaust guilt.

The fictional story inspired by actual events generated enormous controversy upon its Polish release.

A Polish village is forced to acknowledge it has whitewashed Holocaust history in Aftermath, Wladyslaw Pasikowski's powerful but not bombastic fiction film inspired by actual events. Reportedly using the story of a mass killing in Jedwabne (detailed in the Jan Gross book "Neighbors") as a jumping-off point, Pasikowski imagines a community whose Catholic population was far more complicit in Nazi crimes than they admitted to their children, leaving half-buried secrets for later generations to uncover. The film has stirred controversy in Poland since its first screenings at the Warsaw Film Festival a year ago; it will draw less attention here, for obvious reasons, but its novel approach and assured execution should elicit strong reviews in an art house release.

The story is told without a single flashback to WWII and with an all-gentile cast of characters. The setting is many decades after the war (the number of elderly characters on hand who were adults at the time suggests we're not in 2013), and Franek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) is returning home, reluctantly, after 20 years in the U.S. Something has happened with his brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr), a personality shift extreme enough to cause his wife to leave him and inspire random acts of intimidating vandalism from neighbors.

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It seems Jozek has been ripping up the surface of a nearby road -- something that makes no sense until we learn it was paved using the headstones of Jewish graves. Though the Kalinas aren't Jewish (Franek has anti-Semitic tendencies, in fact), Jozek couldn't stand the idea of the dead being disrespected in this way, and has been reconstructing a symbolic graveyard in one of his wheat fields. He started teaching himself Hebrew. Whether his young neighbors fully understood why or were motivated by a kind of unacknowledged genetic memory, they made him a pariah.

As the two brothers patch up family ties, Franek stumbles into a mystery that ensures he'll draw even more local ire than his brother has. The shocking details hew closely, though not exactly, to those of the Jedwabne case, but Aftermath's avoidance of Holocaust-film tropes lets the picture address weighty historical and moral issues while fitting into the genre shoes of a small-town thriller.

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The action remains present-tense, with Stuhr and Czop offering thoroughly specific takes on their characters' battles with conscience and with local thugs; their roles shift surprisingly as more secrets come to light. Pasikowski's script rejects the temptation to shove the story's larger implications down our throats, keeping its focus on two brothers and a plot of land. Judging from the vehement condemnation the film has faced from Polish nationalists (it was banned in some cinemas), it hardly needed to spell things out more than it did.

Production Company: Apple Film Productions

Cast: Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialova, Andrzej Mastalerz, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szaflarska, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska, Wojciech Zielinski

Director-Screenwriter: Wladyslaw Pasikowski

Producers: Dariusz Jablonski, Violetta Kaminska, Izabela Wojcik

Director of photography: Pawel Edelman

Production designer: Allan Starski

Music: Jan Duszynski

Costume designer: Malgorzata Braszka

Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski

No rating, 107 minutes