‘Aftermath’: Past ain’t past

October 28, 2013


You could think of “Aftermath” as a Polish version of “12 Years a Slave”: a film that exhumes a shameful chapter in its nation’s history which some people would just as soon leave buried, rather than confront.

Instead of slavery, however, “Aftermath” deals with Polish anti-semitism, as it was manifested during World War II. Specifically, filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski focuses on the spate of mass murders of Jews carried out in small Polish towns by the residents of those towns, with no instruction or even sanction by the Nazis, as revealed in, among other books, Jan Gross’ 2002 “Neighbors,” about the small village of Jedwabne, Poland.

Pasikowski’s way into the story is oblique, which is what gives “Aftermath” its power. His focus is on Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop), back in Poland for the first time in 20-plus years. He left in the early 1980s to try make it in America, away from the strictures of communism. But he returns to find out what’s going on with his younger brother, Josef (Maciej Stuhr), whose wife and children have left him behind in Poland and moved in with his brother in Chicago.

The Kalinas’ rural village is still somewhat backward, despite it being the start of the 21st century. There are horse-drawn carts, tractors on the roads and nary a computer in sight. Even the old family homestead lacks such niceties as running water.

His brother is in hunker-down mode but it takes Franciszek some time to understand why. At first, all he knows is that his brother is the target of anger from the entire village. Not until he does some prying does he find that Josef’s pulling at a thread – and some villagers fear that it will unravel the fabric of the entire town.

The first clues are the headstones from the local Jewish cemetery, pulled up by the Nazis and used to pave the local roads during the war. Josef has discovered them – and has been pulling them up from the roads, rescuing them from various farms where they’re also used as pavers and steps. He’s created his own little memorial garden of the stones, standing them in his wheat field and even teaching himself Hebrew is order to learn to read them.

Why? That’s Franciszek’s queston. Because it seemed wrong to do otherwise, Josef replies. I don’t know these people – but if these were the gravestones of my parents, I’d want someone to take care of them if I couldn’t, he says.

The controversy – which includes rescuing several such stones from the grounds of the local church – precedes Josef’s effort to sell his land and leave. But he can’t, because the paperwork regarding the provenance of their family farm land is in question. Though it came to their father after the war, the true ownership is murkier – and clarifying it could up-end the entire village.

The history of the land – and the village’s role in the war – eventually does get uncovered, but not out of a quest for knowledge on the part of the townsfolk. Rather, it is the quest of the two brothers – their quixotic mission with the headstones lighting the fuse that will ignite a much farther-reaching explosion.

Czop plays Franciszek as a stolid semi-Americanized expatriate. He loses his suitcase almost immediately and spends the entire film in the same suit, marking him further as an outsider. He carries his own guilt about abandoning his brother to care for their aging parents and not returning (for fear of imprisonment by the government) for their funerals.

Ultimately, “Aftermath” is his journey – his confrontation with the homeland he rejected and now must reclaim. He gets a powerful lesson in the timeless nature of history that will shake viewers with its building emotional power.

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