by Hope Madden
Painting in his room, the artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) suddenly loses his light as an enormous red banner of Stalin is dropped in front of his building. He opens the window, reaches out with his crutch and tears a hole big enough to let in natural light.
It’s a scene heavy with symbolism as well as dread, and one of many that filmmaker Andrzej Wajda uses to evoke a sense of time, place and struggle. It is not how Afterimage opens, though.
In a painterly scene brimming with life and beauty, Strzeminski meets in a meadow with a group of students from his Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz. The WWI veteran missing one arm and leg tucks his crutches and rolls on his side down the hill, followed merrily by his students. A sunny, living painting – the bright spot is meant to give you a comparison as totalitarian post-war Poland crushes every glint of light in the artist’s life.
Wajda’s lean, focused film limits its scope to the days leading up to Strzeninski’s conflict with Poland’s Ministry of Culture and the deterioration of the artist after. His abstract work and outspoken views on “Socialist Realism” – propaganda disguised as art – are deemed counter to public interest.
What to do with an artist?
Linda’s understated performance grieves for hope – a pervasive feeling throughout the film.
Sharply written, lean and efficient, Afterimage engages with an unadorned vision. What emerges is the picture of systematic bullying aimed at breaking a man’s will.
Strzeminski’s story is not so atypical, and as angry a film as Wajda creates, there is no glory in the artist’s martyrdom. There is simply choice. Afterimge doesn’t deify the man. What it does is more honest.
It not only asks after the imperative of personal and artistic choice. It muddies that conversation intentionally with an accusation about the separation of art and commerce.
And it’s not difficult to find modern echoes in totalitarian catch phrases like, “Unfortunately, we have to educate,” and “Those who don’t work won’t eat.”
That’s a lot to cover in a brief run time, but Afterimage is not just an excellent picture of an artist Poland wanted us to forget. It’s a directorial feat to remind us that Wajda, making his last film before his death at 90, was a storyteller of the highest caliber until the end.