Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 04, 2013 11:55 am 
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Wladyslaw Pasikowski: AFTERMATH/Pokłosie (2012)

An highly controversial film about Polish wartime antisemitism

Aftermath (Polish title Pokłosie) stages a dramatic uncovering of a Holocaust story -- a massacre of local Jews by their non Jewish neighbors -- that's substantially true, though the turbulent present-time narrative here is invented and somewhat contrived. The color is not corrected, and the opening feels like a Forties B-picture. Józef Kalina (Maciej Stuhr), a lontime resident in the US, Chicago, to be specific, where he's had a hard time of it making a living in dirty construction jobs, returns on a visit to his Polish hometown to see his farmer brother Franciszek (Ireneusz Czop). Night falls. He's in a suit, lugging a suitcase. It gets stolen right away: why does he leave it by the side of the road when he investigates something in the woods and why does he go into the woods? This could be a horror movie. But the horror is twofold: the secret that is being uncovered and the vicious effort of the locals to repress that. It's not clear this is a good movie. What is certain is that for its target audience it's a powerful one. And it seethes with danger and hostility throughout.

Józef immediately encounters hostility from the villagers, the elder of whom remember him. Bit by bit he finds out why. Franciszek is collecting Jewish tombstones deposited in a variety of disrespectful ways in various places -- as the foundation of a roadway, on farmers' land, around the well of the local church. He is respectfully cleaning them off and planting them in a symbolic graveyard in one of his fields. He's even taught himself Hebrew to decode the writing on them. Franciszek and Józef don't get on that well. Franciszek and others resent Józef's long absence, particularly his failure to return for their parents' funeral. They have some violent clashes: violence and harshness seem around the corner in every scene. But for some reason, despite himself resenting the Jews he met up with in Chicago, Józef begins to support Franciszek's Quixotic, provocative project and it becomes the two brothers against the rest of the local world.

There are trips to look up land records. It emerges that the Kalina brothers' family land used to be elsewhere. All the land that was farmed by Jews has been absorbed by other villagers. The brothers find some old timers, who remember Jewish neighbors. An old lady recalls a Jewish boy who was a good looker and a charmer she was quite attracted to. The issue becomes: what actually happened to the Jews in the war? Villagers say members of the German military came and took them away. But there's no evidence that happened. There is no evidence that the Jews ever left. They died right there. Did they disappear? Eventually it comes out that they were rounded up by several farmers -- in the Kalinas' own former house and trapped there while the building was set aflame. The local Jews were incinerated by their local neighbors. The brothers' uncovering of this information leads to a lynch mob mentality on the part of the villagers, and a new holocaust is on the way when Franciszek's fields, which he has not been able to get help harvesting at the crucial time, are set on fire. Events from here on are tumultuous and there's a dramatic finale. Though we may work conventionally and with a broad brush, Pasikowski keeps up the excitement admirably.

And the effect on Polish viewers was intense, showing that anti-Semitism lives and these issues remain unresolved. An article in The Economist says this "may the most controversial Polish film ever." Reaction to it in Poland has been extreme. This film is loosely based on a real case in northeastern Poland in July 1941, the article says, where several hundred Jews were burned to death in a barn by their non-Jewish neighbors. Illustrations accompanying the article show Polish magazine covers encouraging condemnation of the film and of the star Maciej Stuhr in particular. But it's also reported that the issues have had some serious discussion in print media with support for Stuhr and the filmmakers for their courage. Andrzej Wajda, who's done his own recent war crime film (the 2007 Katyn) , has endorsed this one. According to The Economist a web-monitoring company reports that online anti-Semitism awakened by the film is covert and anonymous, while public chatter on Facebook and Twitter has been pro-Aftermath.

The acting and the action in Aftermath are involving and intense, particularly by Maciej Stuhr and Czop, who give their all. Director Pasikowski seems to have sought to accomplish a job rather than produce a work of art. His film certainly, as the Economist piece mentions, takes an alternative tack to more mainstream efforts like Schindler's List or The Pianist, in which there are "good" Germans, even "good" Nazis. There are no "good" people here. There's nothing even particularly likable about Józef and Franciszek Kalina, though their stubborn, pig-headed persistence eventually may arouse our admiration.

Aftermath/Pokłosie, 107 mins., first showed at the Gdynia and Warsaw film festivals in May and Oct. 2012, subsequently opening theatrically in Poland. It was shown 30 July 2013 as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and opened theatrically in the US 1 Nov. to mediocre reviews (Metacritic: 56). It was screened for this review at Cinema Village, New York, 2 Nov. 2013.


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