Demons are present in every conscience, including national. An even remotely comprehensive understanding requires both micro- and macro-analyses to parse through the troubled mind of a country. Individual account and community self-perception gnash at one another in the presence of past trauma. Temporal suppression requires complicit thousands ostracizing the skeptical. Approaching veracity and creating dialogue comprised of semi-pristine eyes and tongues is tortuous, violent, and ugly.
Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath at once forges dichotomies and slits open the membrane between spectrums, allowing the audience witness to the ensuing confrontation. Concerning the willfully blurred truth behind a mass murder of the Jewish citizens of a Polish village, the story follows Franciszek (Ireneusz Czop), a Chicago emigrant who reluctantly returns to the Polish countryside after twenty years to see his brother Jozef (Maciej Stuhr) and glean why his wife left him for America. From the opening scenes, veiled hostility and invisible antagonists suffuse each frame, a small-town Oversoul bearing fangs and claws. By placing Holocaust subject matter in the filmic vehicle of a thriller, Pasikowski quietly lacerates the placid face of rewritten Polish identity, allowing a festering past to spill to the floor, mewling and ugly. The retaliation bounds beyond the fiction on-screen.
Aftermath is a rare phenomenon in cinema, in part for the laurels and thorns born from the film’s reception in Poland. An enormous controversy — the largest ever there over a film — rent the country in half socially and politically. Right-wing partisans denounced the film as defamatory to the Polish people. Tabloids splayed Maciej Stuhr’s face on cover pages superimposed over Jewish graffiti. While figures such as filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and Poland’s Cultural Minister ladled praise on Pasikowski’s willingness to probe a glossed history, Polish anti-Semites, cloaked in anonymity, lashed out at the cast and crew with online slurs and death threats. Real-life invisible antagonists found their cover slipping, and they desperately wanted the light turned back off.
Aftermath is set apart from many of its Holocaust peers through its deftly employed thriller tropes. There are no flashbacks, no goy martyrs; there isn’t even a Jewish presence in the film until its final scene. There is no distance for respite between the present, the atrocity, and the audience. Wladyslaw Pasikowski masterfully reworks the genre of “our kind” small town mystery into an investigation not only into how 106 Jewish Poles were murdered, but also into the human capacity for duplicity and retribution.
Paskikowski’s direction creates a world for this story to inhabit both faithful to reality and uninviting to the spectator. Constant tracking shots of characters meandering through the pastoral country and driving along dirt roads imparts a n unceasing, uneasy sense of motion. Fixed camera is brought into play almost exclusively for establishing shots. A scene as descriptively innocent as Franciszek driving a tractor into town is rendered unsettling by the recurring presence of an old blue Ford, just following, the driver indiscernible behind the windshield’s reflection. The calm blues and greens of day, with only the insinuation of harm, are traded in for a just-barely-imperceptible malice lurking in the dark. Whenever Franciszek is alone in the woods — lights pouring through trees as if it were Friday the 13th — there is always a presence watching, remaining silent removed even as Franciszek screams for it to appear.
Toward the end, in one of the film’s culminating scenes, Jozef and Franciszek race into a burning field with only branches, the only illumination a vicious wall of red in the background, the shot bobbing and shaking as the cameraman runs after them. The pair madly swat at the 100-foot wall of flames as the firetrucks and townspeople, the implied arsonists, stand on the other side of the forest, ensuring the fire stays only to the brothers’ field. The futility and desperation in the pair’s efforts to contain the blaze mirrors the characters’ central struggle in the film: railing an opponent faceless, nameless, and incontestable.
And herein lies one of the most resounding character and narrative devices in Aftermath. Though the entire town is either complicit or active in the hampering of the brothers’ efforts, culpability is never assigned a face nor shown in action. There are only three scenes involving any violence, and they’re all brawls. The blame is always liquid, sidling from the priest to the mechanic to the sawmill worker and so on: concrete assignment of antagonist is left at the wayside. Even the assignment of protagonist is loose. While Jozef can be seen as the most virtuous character present, his brother participates in the “casual” anti-semitism apparently rife through Poland, dropping remarks such as, “The Jews have the construction business cornered in Chicago.” Poland is a nation covered in gray, where the malicious work in anonymity and moral absolutism is a lotus flower consumed en masse by the willfully ignorant.
Aftermath is again separate from its Holocaust kin because of one final and crushing difference: there is nothing learned. The film’s conclusion finds all parties involved, if anything, more disillusioned and baleful. Wladyslaw Pasikowski sets a grim prediction for his country’s future in confronting ugly memories the country would rather keep under dirt. There is only a morsel of hope to take after seeing this film: the far-fetched idea that a man so intelligent could be wrong about his own country.