NEW YORK — Some people would prefer to keep the past buried. This understandable human characteristic is made literal in Władysław Pasikowski’s new film “Aftermath.” It is a meditative look at collective guilt, lingering prejudice and the dark ramifications that sometimes come when bringing the truth to light. After a controversial run in its native Poland (more on this in a bit) it is poised to make its US bow.
Loosely based on a true event from 2001 as recorded in “Neighbors” by historian Jan Gross, “Aftermath” concerns two brothers in a rural Polish community. We witness events through the eyes of Franek (Ireneusz Czop) who has been living in Chicago for the last 20 years. He’s returned because his brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) just split with his wife. (Indeed, we’ll find out that she and the kids are camping at Franek’s place.) In time, we’ll learn that some unusual behavior on Jozek’s part has led the small village to ostracize him.
After some sleuthing, Franek finds that Jozek has discovered old Jewish tombstones in hidden spots throughout the community. He first notices them under an unused road after a flood, then recognizes that his neighbors are using them to shore up wells or as desks. They are even in the church.
Jozek begins moving them to one of his family’s fields – a makeshift cemetery. In time, the brothers will learn that the appropriation of Jewish property goes far beyond just tombstones. More to the point, the older Poles in the community were not mere innocent bystanders to German belligerence. But when they discover just how their own family was complicit it causes complications, to say the least.
In addition to being a good (and upsetting) yarn, “Aftermath” is a fascinating character examination. While both ostensibly “good guys,” Franek and Jozek are very flawed individuals. Franek, who struggles to make ends meet in Chicago, seems, at first, sophisticated, but is quick to sputter hateful things about “the Yids,” even when confronting the Town about collecting the headstones. And even though there isn’t a live Jew in sight, the darkest insult one could hurl at someone else is to accuse them of being Jewish.
“Aftermath” caused quite a ruckus in Poland when it came out last year. It was charged by some on the nationalist right wing as being “anti-Polish propaganda” and some theaters refused to run it. The actor who played Jozek was widely ridiculed, with his image framed in a Jewish star on the cover of Polish weekly, accused of “simplifying and manipulating history for commercial success.”
I discussed these issues and more with the film’s director Władysław Pasikowski via email through an interpreter.
The movie is loosely based on the Jedwabne incident. Those revelations were uncovered a decade ago, when there were more guilty parties that were still alive. If a discovery like this were to be made today — or in 10 years — when there would be no living witnesses/culprits, do you think reaction would be different?
Unfortunately, I think the reaction from one part of society would be identical. The truth is dangerous for those who are guilty, but inconvenient for everyone. Moreover, the post-war generations have a duty to face the truth, regardless of the consequences. Not just philosophically, because truth is beautiful, but also for practical reasons, since you can’t build a positive image if you haven’t confessed your sins and been forgiven.
Why do people feel responsible about things they did not do — that happened before they were born? This is seen both in Jozef’s reaction to the final revelations about his father, but also the Polish right wing that have reacted furiously to your film?
The main culprit here is a sense of national honor that has been taken the wrong way. Part of society, which happens to be the right wing, won’t admit that the Poles could ever have done anything contemptible in their entire history. We were always the good, loyal, heroic ones, and even if we weren’t always victorious, at least we were morally victorious, innocent victims. Those who say otherwise are traitors and dissenters.
Meanwhile, it’s even statistically impossible, since dark times never actually dominated our history or obscured the bright sides. Jews and Poles coexisted in the same country for hundreds of years. During World War II, thousands of Poles endangered their lives and those of their families to assist Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis.
No anti-Semitic excesses can change that, but the truth must never be brushed under the carpet.
Another reason [for their behavior] is the fear that Jews will reclaim the property they lost in Poland.
Franek is a fascinating character. He is the POV of the audience, entering this village. And yet he is quick to say some anti-Semitic things. He doesn’t really change his tune all that much by the end of the film, either. He is clearly a moral man, but there is a bad aftertaste. Why choose to make your lead character one that is hard to fully like?
Franek is an example of someone who repeats anti-Semitic slogans mindlessly. He was brought up in a traditional Catholic peasant family, where he was always told he was better than his Jewish neighbor. He replicates that behavior, and preaches various stereotypes. In Poland it is popular to be anti-Semitic — even without Jews.
However, such thoughtless anti-Semitism can easily be transformed into murderous ideology, like what happened in 1930s’ Germany. When Franek realizes that truth, he manages to get rid of his stereotyped thoughts. He stops dividing people up into Jews and gentiles, and starts talking about good and bad people.
I wanted my hero to learn something from the history of his family and his village, which is why he couldn’t be all-knowing and blameless at the start. Perhaps I also wanted some of the audience to learn the same things as Franek.
There are a lot of reports about anti-Semitic activity coming out of Europe — in France, Hungary and Greece, especially. I know you can’t speak for all of Europe, but do you see an increase in anti-Semitism? Are these isolated incidents? Or are things about the same?
It’s Iran we should be worried about
On the contrary, I think things are improving, but that doesn’t mean everything’s fine already and we’re only dealing with isolated incidents of excess. The problem is that, during and straight after the war, anti-Semitism was so widespread in Europe and in America that things could only get better, even though it will probably take another few generations for anti-Semitism and racism to finally die out and sink into oblivion. Things have definitely gotten better in Europe. It’s Iran we should be worried about.
It’s easy to write about the negative stuff that has surfaced as a result of this film, but what are some of the positive things that have happened?
That’s the first time anyone has ever asked me this. Indeed, there were some positive things. Over 300,000 people went to see the film in cinemas, and more than 100,000 bought the DVD. The film was generally well received, and it stimulated concentration and contemplation. Many people congratulated us on our creative integrity, which wasn’t always the case with my previous films. The fact that the film is to be screened in American cinemas is like entering the promised land for me as a filmmaker.
“Aftermath” opens in New York City at Lincoln Plaza and Cinema Village on November 1. It opens in Los Angeles at The Royal, Town Center and Playhouse 7 on November 15.