KRAKOW — The first Polish film to portray the country’s gentiles committing crimes against their Jewish neighbors has hit movie theaters, generating both enthusiastic praise and threats of violence against one of the stars.
“Aftermath,” written and directed by Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski, is based on the events of the infamous Jedwabne massacre of July 1941, in which nearly all of the town’s Jews were beaten to death or burned alive. Long blamed on the occupying Nazis, the slaughter was later revealed to be the work of ordinary Polish citizens.
A joint production between Poles and filmmakers from Russia, Holland and Slovakia, the fictional “Aftermath” tells the story of a Polish man who returns home after many years abroad to discover a dark secret about his family’s past – his brother‘s participation in an anti-Jewish massacre. Although the town’s name and other details have been changed, the movie is widely understood to be about Jedwabne, and won the Journalists’ Prize earlier this year at the Gdynia Film Festival, Poland’s most important movie event.
More than 200,000 Poles attended screenings in the first two weeks after the film’s release, a solid outcome for a country of Poland’s size.
Vividly reimagined by the film, the Jedwabne massacre was carried out with German encouragement, but was planned and performed by Poles. Of the town‘s roughly 1,600 Catholics, an estimated 50 percent of the men participated in the killing — first by beating, stabbing and bludgeoning Jedwabne‘s 1,600 Jews, then by locking the survivors in a barn and burning them alive.
For decades, a plaque in the town claimed Germans had carried out the violence — a claim everyone who remained in Jedwabne knew to be false. But in 2001, Jan Gross, a Princeton historian with Polish-Jewish origins, published “Neighbors,” in which he presented evidence that the massacre had been planned and perpetrated by Poles rather than Nazis. The revelations caused bitter recriminations and significant soul-searching across Poland, a country that has long chosen to overlook its citizens’ sometimes spirited participation in the Holocaust.
For decades, a plaque in the town falsely claimed that Germans had carried out the violence
Days before “Aftermath” went into wide release, the film’s Warsaw premiere attracted an impressive number of public figures, who praised the film and described it as a step forward in Poles’ acknowledgement of their history.
“I am very happy that such a film has been made in Poland,” said Andrzej Wajda, one of the country‘s foremost directors and the recipient of an honorary Academy Award.
The country’s culture minister, Bogdan Zdrojewski, also praised the movie, noting its “courage in taking on such a difficult theme.”
Critics largely agreed, with Giuseppe Sedia, in a review for the Krakow Post, likening its production values to “the best Hollywood thrillers,” and saying the movie effectively mirrors Poles’ complex relationship with their wartime past.
“The tormented relationship and lack of mutual understanding between [the brothers] can be read as metaphor for the Polish-Polish war” over how to remember the period, he wrote.
Reactions among the general public have been decidedly more mixed, with some extolling the film‘s willingness to take on a shameful episode, and others arguing that it paints an unfair portrait of average Poles.
Opinions on the popular Gazeta portal have been representatively diverse, with one commenter writing, “Even before I see it, I am very proud that such a movie has been made in Poland, because most people are afraid of facing the truth, and prefer to run away from what might be hard for them to watch, or that accuses them of something. I think it is very important to face our history bravely.”
‘“Even before I see it, I am very proud that such a movie has been made in Poland, because most people are afraid of facing the truth’
Another commenter voiced a similar perspective, arguing that the film shouldn’t be viewed as “anti-Polish,” adding, “It is a very important to watch this movie and think about it, no matter what your religion or nationality.”
Others have questioned the need for “Aftermath,” however, with one opining, “I have seen enough movies about the persecution of Jews, and I don’t want to watch another.”
Others have gone as far as to threaten one of the film’s stars, claiming “Aftermath” slanders Poland. Maciej Stuhr, who plays one of the brothers, has said he’s been struck by a wave of hostility since the movie’s release. Online attacks have dismissed him as “a Jew, and not a Pole anymore,” and have even included threats against his life.
“I knew that there would be a storm – it was inevitable,” he told Polish news channel TVN24. “We’re not dealing with this tragic history, and that’s what the film is about.”
Pasikowski, the film‘s director, has remained largely silent since the film’s opening, declining to give interviews and relying on a statement provided at the premiere.
“[The story] is one of the most painful chapters in Poland’s history,” he told reporters. “We already have a huge number of movies on the horrors committed by the Germans and the Soviets, and I think it’s time to show the terrible things we did ourselves.”