Film Review: Afterimage

Andrzej Wajda’s final work is a staunchly moral portrait of staunchly iconoclastic Polish modern artist Władysław Strzeminski and his battle with the postwar Stalinist regime.
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When one artist represents another, it’s tempting to assume that they are crafting an image of themselves in surrogate form. In the case of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died at the age of ninety this past year just a month after the premiere of his last movie, Afterimage, the temptation is difficult to avoid. After all, the movie’s real-life subject, avant-garde painter Władysław Strzeminski, suffered under Communism for his unwillingness to bend his art to the demands of “socialist realism.” Decades ago, Wajda’s movies were subject to censorship by Communist authorities. The collapse of the Iron Curtain freed Wajda to find international recognition on his own terms, winning an honorary Academy Award in 2000. But audiences looking for a similarly uplifting tale of rewarded stubbornness in the face of oppression will be sorely disappointed by the uncompromisingly monochromatic dramatic palette of Afterimage.

At the beginning of the story, it’s 1948, and the Soviets are moving to reassert their control over Poland. Strzeminski (played with a regal self-possession by Bogusław Linda) is one of the most popular professors at the modern art academy in Lodz, an institution he helped found before the war. Injuries suffered in the First World War left him with just one functioning leg and hand, a fact he joyfully acknowledges in one of the first scenes where he avoids the inconvenience of hobbling down a hillside on his crutches and just rolls down like a child. The kind of professor who inspires awed devotion from his students, Strzeminski holds them rapt with his lectures on extreme subjectivity.

That brand of individualism ran precisely counter to the mass ideological conformity just then being enforced by the Communist authorities. Stomping into Strzeminski’s lecture on Van Gogh’s way of seeing the world, the commissars announce that henceforth “[art] should meet the needs of the people.” Since Strzeminski, with his louche air of garret-painting defiance, might as well be wearing a sandwich board reading “Art for Art’s Sake,” this doesn’t precisely sit well with him.

In the same way that Wajda, whose own dissidence hurt his career and ultimately drove him out of Poland, encouraged the distribution of banned films, Strzeminski didn’t bend to the authoritarian narrative. As a result, he loses his teaching job and becomes persona non grata in a country where red kerchief-wearing children are suddenly everywhere, as are the strains of “The Internationale.” Meanwhile, his students purloin a typewriter and pitch in to dictate his book-length manifesto, Theory of Vision. Strzeminski unfurls individualistic aphorisms like “Even Mondrian shouldn’t paint like Mondrian” and “You can only give what you have” from behind a veil of cigarette smoke. The irony is that in the prewar years his working theory was much closer to that of the authorities: Art should promote the revolution. By the time that Wajda has caught up with him, though, that old fervor has died away. Now, when workers drape a massive Stalin banner across the front of his building, bathing his studio in bloody light that calls to mind the Soviet atrocities that Wajda chronicled in his other works like Katyn, Strzeminski slashes a hole through it with his crutch.

Oddly for a historical movie, Afterimage is all too embedded in its present reality. Strzeminski is only ever himself at that moment. His increasingly haunted and strained visage, which Linda embodies with the flinty vigor of a young George C. Scott, gives evidence to his suffering at the time. But little effort is expended on uncovering the source of his stubbornness or his fateful change in political outlook. Also comparatively unexamined is the relationship between him and his fussing young daughter Nina (Bronislawa Zamachowska), who ends up being just another of the women fluttering around the great artist. He ultimately pays them as little mind as he does the ever-shrinking circle of living and spiritual space allowed him by the authorities.

Afterimage is testament to the suffering of every artist given an ultimatum by authoritarians to do as they say or face the consequences. As such, it’s a fitting coda for Wajda’s career. But this terse historical drama takes a little too much for granted by assuming the audience won’t need or want to see anything of this artist before his final years and that they will treat him with the same fulsome admiration as his fawning students.

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