Devastating: that’s the only adjective I can think of to describe my response to this Polish import. Its impact was all the greater because I knew virtually nothing about it ahead of time. While it’s tempting to encourage you to read J. Hoberman’s thorough and thoughtful article in last Sunday’s New York Times, I would recommend waiting until you’ve seen the picture. Writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski has structured it like a mystery that reveals itself one layer at a time, and that’s the best way to experience it. (Hoberman astutely compares it to Bad Day at Black Rock and High Plains Drifter.)
The time is 2001, and a man who left Poland for America twenty years ago returns to his family’s farming village. He feels uncomfortable from the moment he arrives, and there is good reason: he faces a hostile and unforgiving community, which has turned on his younger brother. His sibling still works their farm but has incurred the wrath of his neighbors because he has rescued the abandoned headstones of local Jews and placed them in his field, creating an unofficial cemetery. Why? He can’t really explain, except that it seems like the right thing to do.
The older sibling (played by Ireneusz Czop) is no hero; in fact, he has a chip on his shoulder about the Jews he’s met in Chicago who seem to have the construction business all tied up. But as he and his brother uncover their village’s unspeakable past, dating back to the earliest days of World War II, they find themselves waging a lonely and thankless battle.
The most upsetting aspect of Aftermath is that it is rooted in truth. Pasikowski was inspired by a controversial book called Neighbors, by Jan T. Gross and a 1996 Frontline documentary, Shtetl, by Marian Marzynski. By fictionalizing his story and cloaking it in the guise of a thriller he draws us in as an audience, although it’s hard to maintain the element of surprise once we see where he is headed.My initial reaction to Aftermath was to question how such an incendiary film could be made, let alone screened, in Poland. The answer is simple: it set off a firestorm of protest and led to death threats for the filmmaker and his leading actor. This speaks to the extraordinary power of cinematic storytelling. A “fictional” movie can often touch raw nerves in a way a documentary can’t; it’s the reason Aftermath is worth seeking out.