By Alex Ramon.
Two new films about iconic Polish artists screened at the Gdynia Film Festival, Poland’s primary showcase for its national cinema, last September. One was The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina), the feature debut of Jan P. Matuszyński, which depicted, in an episodic fashion, the last 25 years in the lives of the ill-fated family of Zdzisław Beksiński (1929-2005), whose paintings were known for their apocalyptic, surrealist visions of death and decay. Unfailingly intimate, sometimes darkly funny, low-key yet lacerating in its cumulative impact, The Last Family is one of the finest Polish films of recent years: a perfectly pitched drama which marks out the 33-year-old Matuszyński as a major talent to watch.
The other artist-centered film to screen at Gdynia was Afterimage (Powidoki), a portrait of Poland’s leading avant-gardist Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952), directed by a master filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (1926-2016). Indeed, Afterimage turned out to be the 90-year-old Wajda’s final film; he died just a couple of weeks following the Gdynia screening, leaving behind a formidable body of work that not only included nearly 40 fiction features but also documentaries, TV plays, and stage productions. Wajda’s death felt like the end of an era for Polish cinema, one that undoubtedly established the director as the most dedicated and conscientious chronicler of his nation’s turbulent 20th century via seminal works such as the War Trilogy (A Generation , Kanal , Ashes and Diamonds ), The Promised Land (1974) and Man of Marble (1977), as well as less widely known gems including Everything for Sale (1968), Landscape After Battle (1970) and The Young Girls of Wilko (1979) and Sweet Rush (2009), which are all ripe for reappraisal.
Although many deemed The Last Family to be a much worthier choice, Afterimage was Poland’s Oscar candidate this year, and the movie now receives a limited theatrical release in the US. Perhaps inevitably, the film does not find Wajda at the peak of his artistic powers: like Katyń, his 2007 film about the covered-up Soviet massacre of Polish soldiers and intellectuals in World War II, Afterimage can feel more like a monument than a movie, overall. Still, the film is a worthwhile coda to a great career, and a heartfelt, if patchy, tribute to one of the pivotal figures in 20th-century art.
Indeed, opening at the time of celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the avant-garde in Poland, an assessment of Strzemiński’s struggles and achievements feels particularly vital. The co-founder of the Higher School of Visual Arts in Łódź (now the Władysław Strzemiński Academy of Fine Arts), Strzemiński’s work combined Cubist, Purist, Neo-Plasticist, and Constructivist influences which he formulated into his own theory of Unism; he was also a popular and influential teacher who set out his artistic credo in Theory of Vision (1948-1949; a book which is now getting a long-overdue English language translation, thanks to the efforts of Łódź Art Museum). Afterimage takes as its focus the last four years of Strzemiński’s life, a period during which the artist found himself in constant conflict with the authorities, as his abstract style clashed with the Communist doctrine of Socialist Realism enforced by the Ministry of Culture. In essence, the film is a chronicle of a downward spiral, charting the various oppressions suffered by Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda): the cancelling of his classes and his ultimate dismissal from teaching, the banning of his book, and the destruction of some of his public works.
Given the difficulties that Wajda and his collaborators also experienced under Poland’s Communist regime, the film’s focus on Strzemiński’s struggles is perhaps unsurprising: Afterimage suggests a gesture of fellow feeling – of solidarity, if you will – made by one victim of totalitarian oppression to another. (Lest we forget, Wajda himself also started out as a painter, studying at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts between 1946 and 1949.) As a generalized account of the artist battling the state, the film undoubtedly has interest, yet Wajda doesn’t find a way to make the material as impactful or as nuanced as it might have been. Some scenes clunk, there are undeveloped elements, and the dialogue (Andrzej Mularczyk wrote the screenplay) can be as exposition-heavy as in the director’s previous film about a Polish icon (2013’s Walesa: Man of Hope) without the compensatory livelier, grungier aesthetic that gave that film some dynamism.
While Paweł Edelman’s cinematography is characteristically elegant throughout, the movie’s most memorable image (after a beautiful, carefully designed credit sequence) comes early: Strzemiński, working in his studio, is bathed in red light as a huge banner of Stalin (which the protagonist proceeds to slash) is hung on the façade of the building. The film never again matches this sequence for expressiveness.
A sense of the artist’s day-to-day life and personality – so central to The Last Family or, for a non-Polish example, Mike Leigh’s superb Mr Turner (2014) – is also lacking. Originally intended to be the film’s dramatic focus, the volatile relationship between Strzemiński and his wife, the prominent sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, has been reduced to a few brief references here, perhaps because a fuller exploration of it might have risked diminishing our sympathies with the protagonist (who, according to some accounts, was given to beating his wife with a crutch). Instead, the film tentatively explores his difficult relationship with his daughter, Nika (Bronisława Zamachowska). Zamachowska plays this role in an offhand manner that doesn’t suggest full commitment but that’s nonetheless preferable to the ingratiating cutesyness with which the part could have been approached.
Linda’s performance, on the other hand, is one of the film’s main assets. Always a highly physical performer – whether as the limping suitor in Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone (1980) or in his (triple) dash for the train in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987) – he captures Strzemiński’s disability (he lost an arm and leg due to World War I wounds) without overdoing it and carries the film’s weaker spots with some fine physical details, such as licking a plate clean as the starving Strzemiński is finally presented with a meal in a late scene. Yet, for all that, the viewer doesn’t emerge with a strong sense of who Strzemiński was, and his scenes with an adoring student (Zofia Wichłacz, a Best Actress winner at Gdynia in 2014 for her role in Jan Komasa’s powerful Uprising extravaganza Warsaw 44) are also under-developed.
Such sketched-in elements mean that there’s a compromised, cramped feel to Afterimage, as well as a conventionality to its approach that’s vastly at odds with the avant-garde art that it celebrates. As the final film by one of the greatest of European directors, the movie is necessary viewing. Yet, lacking the richness of texture of Wajda’s best work, Afterimage remains respectable rather than revelatory: more of a worthy sketch than an illuminating portrait.
Afterimage opens in New York on 19 May and Los Angeles on 26 May.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Lodz, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers, and actors, including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson and blogs at Boycotting Trends.