For those readers who don’t follow the Polish film industry on a day-to-day level, it’s probably worth stating that Aftermath arrives this month in U.S. theaters (November 1 in New York, November 15 in Los Angeles) not just with festival wins but also with the sort of “controversy” that is usually reserved in the United States for films that are directed by Michael Moore. According to the film’s press release, it has been banned from some theaters in Poland and its star, Maciej Stuhr, has even received death threats.
It’s not surprising, then, to find the film is about antisemitism. What was surprising to me was how fresh it managed to be even while dealing with a subject that is as old as Western civilization.
The film opens with Franek returning home from America after twenty years. He receives a chilly reception, both from his brother Jozek (Stuhr) and the locals. In America, Franek’s identity is as a Pole, and he bitterly resents the solidarity of the Jews there who seem to have made inroads into businesses that are closed to him and his countrymen. He distinguishes himself from other immigrants by reminding those at home that he still speaks Polish and is still able to work shoulder to shoulder with any of them while doing manual labor. Jozek and the neighbors berate him for not returning to Poland for his parents’ funeral, but he senses there is some other, deeper, source of animosity.
Jozek and the neighbors may be equally suspicious of Franek, but it doesn’t take the visiting brother long to see there are local tensions. Franek walks in on the aftermath of a bar fight and is unconvinced by Jozek’s explanation of its cause. The brothers are in Jozek’s home and a brick comes through the window. Also, Jozek’s wife has left him, taking their children to America and the brother can’t–or won’t–say why.
Might any of this have to do with the fact that Jozek has begun collecting headstones from Jewish graves, going so far as to rip up parts of stone roads before they are paved over so that the grave markers are not lost permanently? Of course. Those who are inclined to mock or dismiss the film could, I suppose, claim that it is a “mystery” whose solution is never really in doubt. I would argue, though, that the film owes more to the Gothic than the straight mystery; what’s important is not so much what the answer to the question of why this family is cursed but how that answer is revealed…and the costs of keeping it hidden for so long.
On of the things the film does exceptionally well–and it is a thing that is hard in this sort of historically situated drama–is interweave the family history with the cultural history. As the brothers dig deeper (literally and figuratively), the consequences of the truths they unearth are not idle ones. The bank questions whether or not the title to the land left by their father was a “clean” one, and while the Holocaust has receded in history, legal claims to lost property are not unprecedented. Searching for truth has already cost them friends, perhaps a marriage. Could it end up costing them their home? Beyond that, though, the animosity between the brothers reinforces that family myths–who is the good son, who is the prodigal, who is the good parent, whose memories and version of history are accepted as truth–are as hard to change or challenge as national ones.
It strikes me as both ironic and appropriate that Aftermath is releasing in America the same month as Steve McQueen’s more highly anticipated 12 Years a Slave. Both films deal with unimaginable cultural atrocities as filtered through individual experiences. Both films raise questions about whether narrative film can or should be used to document historical atrocities or whether doing so inadvertently blurs the line between fact and fiction. Yet as horrific as the incident the brothers uncover is, the film’s true bravery is not so much in claiming this (or something like it) happened many years ago but in saying that the hatred that allowed it to happen lives in our hearts to this day.
Another thing that I very much appreciated about Aftermath is that it is hard to have an honest film about antisemitism that doesn’t come across as anti-Christian. Historically, much antisemitism has been perpetuated in the name and service of the Christian faith. The film doesn’t back away from that, but it also shows individual Christians horrified by that connection. Seldom has the recitation of the “Hail Mary” prayer been more heartbreaking on film, and when it is spoken and the words “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” come, we understand that while their faith may not have been powerful enough to eradicate every vestige of hatred and prejudice from their hearts, it has, at least, empowered them to confront it and see it for what it is. They may not be able to fix the world, Franek says, “but we won’t make it worse, and that’s something.”
That’s a pretty important something.