by M. Faust
History is too important a subject to be left to the movies, especially given that most of what we “know” about the past is shaped by the silver screen. Aftermath provoked enormous controversy when it was released in Poland by people who had some familiarity with the events on which it was based. That’s a good thing: such arguments flesh out a story, and even an imprecisely told story can be a seed that grows into something more meaningful. For international audiences, who are far less likely to have any other exposure to the case, Aftermath will probably be taken at face value as a historical expose.
Writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski based his film on a 2000 book about a massacre of Jews at the Polish town of Jedwabne in 1941. The book touched a raw nerve by examining Polish anti-Semitism, a subject generally dwarfed by Nazi atrocities of the same era.
But Pasikowski (an eminent filmmaker in his country and the co-scripter of Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, about a very different wartime atrocity in Poland) uses only the central event of what happened at Jedwabne, putting it in a new context that plays out like a horror movie along the lines of a Stephen King or Shirley Jackson story. (By leaving the revelation of the event for the final reel Pasikowski stymies the conscientious critic whose first commandment is Thou Shalt Not Give Away the Ending.)
While he may provide the visceral wallop of a horror film, Pasikowski would surely deny that such was his goal. He expects his Polish audience to be familiar with the event that is finally revealed (the film’s structure has two brothers, one working the family farm and the other newly returned after 20 years in Chicago, digging into past events in their village to the consternation of their neighbors). What he hoped to gain by changing its context, I can’t imagine. The end result, especially for non-Polish viewers, is a well-made but awfully blunt thriller that gets clumsier as it goes along, culminating with an image so gruesomely symbolic as to make you feel you’ve been slapped in the face.
Opens Friday at the North Park Theater.
Watch the trailer for Aftermath
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