The late Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda was the first exposure many of us outside of the Soviet Bloc had to Eastern European cinema outside of a film class.
His movies weren’t Soviet or “state” sanctioned, but gave us a taste of the life and hopes — under restrictions — of those living and working under dictatorial thumbs. “Man of Marble,” “Man of Iron” and “Danton” were three works that stand out, allegorical films that packed an emotional punch during the last days of the Soviet Empire. Wajda made movies long before the Iron Curtain fell, and several movies of heft and worth afterward.
With “Afterimage,” his final completed feature, he couldn’t have asked for a better coda. It’s a screen biography of avante garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, “the most important Polish painter of the 20th century,” an artist who studied with Chagal and Kandinsky, founder of the first museum of modern art in Poland (the second in all of Europe).
Widely respected, famous even — he was in the middle of teaching a new generation of Polish artists when the post-World War II Soviet satellite socialist state made him the target of its wrath against artists who eschewed “socialist realism” (see any muscular propaganda poster).
Wadja has made a film about a man with one arm and one leg harassed to death by an Orwellian state bent on his destruction.
Tell me there’s no symbolism in all that.
Boguslaw Linda plays Strzeminski as an unflappable, soulful and even playful artist-teacher. A new student (Zofia Wichlacz) wants to meet him on a mountainside field trip, and Strzeminski holds his crutches close to his chest and rolls down the hill to introduce himself.
“The image has to be what you absorb,” he teaches his adoring pupils (in Polish, with English subtitles). “A person only sees what he is aware of.”
He deconstructs Van Gogh’s way of “seeing” and directing the viewer’s eye, and encourages uninhibited thinking in his acolytes. We can tell straight off that this will be his undoing.
The Soviet era erasure of “the difference between art and politics” doesn’t sit well with Strzeminski. He is mild-mannered, nobody’s idea of an agitator. But when it comes to groupthink and conformity, he is immovable.
A great way to illustrate that? Hang a giant red banner-portrait of Stalin on the front of Strzeminski’s Lodz apartment, blocking his light and turning his room red. He breaks out a knife and slashes it up so that he can see.
He has a teen daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska) re-acquainting herself with him, now that her mother/his ex-wife is dying. And he has work to do, commissions and whatever moves him, work that has been displayed at the local museum in a special room, in cafes and exhibits all over Lodz.
But the arts commissar has a warning — “You are standing at a crossroad. You cannot stand there any longer.”
The line is drawn, the die is cast. The author of “The Theory of Vision” is told, point blank, “You should be hit by a train.”
Wajda brilliantly captures life in the grey-grim Eastern Bloc of the late 1940s, early 1950s. Nothing new was being built, no individualism was tolerated and a man like Strzeminski’s colorful, geometric “neoplastic” abstractions was never going to fit in.
He stoically soldiers on in this drab, repressive world, but every path he tries to take to make, sell and show his art is blocked, one by one. He lacks “papers” (a license) to make fine art. He can’t even buy paint.
It’s a moving but simple, unfussy film about several subjects Wajda identified with — individuality in a conformist state, Polish identity, the artist’s role in society and the state’s often-stated rejection of all of that.
“Afterimage” may not be Wajda’s best film, but it is a worthy final addition to his canon and a fine curtain call, a great artist memorializing what another great artist was put through just to do what artist’s do — see the truth, and “impose that truth on reality.”
MPAA Rating: unrated
Credits: Directed by Andrzej Wajda, script by Andrzej Mularczyk. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:38