The famed Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (“The Promised Land”) was often regarded as “Poland’s man of memory.” His films depict life in Poland with a keen eye, detailing struggles from World War II to the Cold War. The last film he made before his death was also the last screening at this year’s Polish Film Festival at the Michigan Theater. “Afterimage” (“Powidoki” original title) tells the life story of the avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński, who lived in communist Poland and stuck to his artistic individuality despite political obstacles.
Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda, “Blind Chance”) is a crippled artist living in post-World War II Poland and teaching at the Lodz school of art. Sometimes the film feels like an extended art history class with long-winded speeches by Strzemiński accompanied by a handful of eager students. He poses philosophical questions on the meaning of art while his fanclub of students worship the ground he hobbles on. While Strzemiński preaches his philosophies on art, Poland has been overtaken by communism. The only art that the regime allows is socialist realism that promotes the ideals of the political goals of the republic. Strzemiński vocally opposes the regime’s stranglehold on artistic freedom and creative expression leading to a series of hardships imposed on him by the government that the artist must overcome, but not at the expense of his individuality. The regime gets him fired and bars him from any job in an artistic field, leaving the artist impoverished, starving and sick with tuberculosis.
The artist that once held court with modern art geniuses like Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich died with little to nothing to his name, aside from the work that escaped the hands of the communist regime. While Strzemiński proves his talent as an artist and teacher, he fails at raising his young daughter from his marriage to fellow artist Katarzyna Kobro. Their daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska, “Persona Non Grata”) spends most of her time on screen taking care of her father and warning him that he smokes too much. However, the young actress perfectly captures the curiosity and responsibility that Nika must take on as the daughter of a sick, dying mother and a distracted, handicapped father.
A poignant moment in the film occurs when one of Strzemiński’s former students comes back to visit him. She is a Polish Jew, a survivor of the atrocities of the Holocaust who is fleeing to Israel. She asks her teacher if she can take with her the collages he made between 1945 and 1947 titled, “To my Friends the Jews.” The series captures a unique perspective of an observer with a guilty conscious. The collages are laid out for the viewer to take in, a beautifully tragic array of morbid photographs of death camps and skeletal corpses and Strzemiński’s famous squiggles.
Hania, Jennifer Lawrence’s Polish doppelganger, is played with passion and endearing naivete by Zofia Wichlacz (“Warsaw 44”). The young artist is desperately in love with her teacher and decides to type his work into what is now known as his revolutionary magnum opus, “The Theory of Vision.”
Wajda’s last film is certainly a testament to his work as a historian and filmmaker alike. The film provides a much deserved look at an underrepresented time in Polish history and a man, like Wajda, who put his art and integrity before everything.