A young man took the stage. He was earnest, pale, and underfed. "We are about to show you a film."
We students were excited. Kids love it when class is canceled and the teacher shows a film.
The young man continued in that weird English that could be heard only in the old Soviet Empire. The Iron Curtain guaranteed that its detainees didn't have much of a chance to converse with outsiders. Those very few people who could speak any English at all sounded as if they had memorized a purloined dictionary, reverse-engineered the grammar, and practiced only on Mars.
"Since you are Americans, you will not understand this movie," the young man promised, with a familiar resignation. The waiters in the restaurants with no food; the train station clerks who couldn't sell you a ticket and couldn't explain why; the librarians whose shelves were off limits: resignation flowed more reliably than water through the noisy pipes in the student dorm.
"Our history is peculiar," the young man informed us. We knew. We could exchange one dollar for fistfuls of Polish money. My Australian roommate, Kirstin, was about to visit West Germany. My Polish friend, Beata, gave Kirstin her entire month's salary, so Kirstin could bring back to Beata one spool of turquoise thread.
The movie began. Understand it? It swept me away. The 1973 film The Wedding (Wesele) manipulated images so skillfully that it might have been an amusement park ride. Through every breathtaking twist, The Wedding owned my rapidly beating heart, my flip-flopping guts, and my spine pressed against the seat.
The wedding in question was between an urban poet and a peasant. It was a bacchanalia, with orgiastic flirting, frenzied dancing, and percussive folk tunes, but there was simmering tension underneath. That juxtaposition – of celebration over the open mouth of hell – made it impossible for me to look away.
Images from The Wedding have stayed with me for forty years. A pretty young partier, her white face slick with sweat, elaborate red ribbons springing from her coiffure, stares blankly ahead. She holds a snifter of vodka in her fist, and sausages project out from between her fingers. She gulps the vodka and rotates her hand to bite off the tips of the sausages. Such crude power requires no subtitles.
There is a flashback. Years before, Polish peasants – just like those at this wedding – had sold Polish aristocrats' heads to Austrian overlords. The Austrians placed the heads in a wicker basket that bled onto the floor. A peasant whose face was caked with dirt dipped his hands into a bucket of blood. These memories are dredged up at the wedding. The poet sneers at his peasant bride. His face expresses all the hatred the elite feel for the great unwashed they try so hard to love.
I wish that I could find that earnest Polish man and tell him. No, I didn't "understand" The Wedding in that I had a command of all the facts. I didn't know that Polish nobles sometimes called serfs, my ancestors, "cattle." I didn't know that in 1900, poet Lucjan Rydel married a peasant girl as part of an effort to bridge the divide between the upper classes and the peasants, a rift that Poland's enemies reliably exploited in divide-and-conquer strategies. Only fifty-four years before Rydel's wedding, Jakub Szela led an uprising against serfdom, an uprising that took the lives of a thousand nobles. Austrian colonizers did purchase the heads of Polish nobility. Peasants brought in so many heads that the price was lowered from coins to salt.
Rather, I understood universal tensions. The poet was, in modern parlance, a well-meaning, politically correct elitist and virtue signaler who "went native" and tried to paper over tectonic divides with high ideals of universal brotherhood. The wedding guests struggled to allow the loud music – the musicians might have been playing "Kumbaya" – to unite them. This social engineering was doomed. Class conflict could not be mended with one party – nor, later, with one Party.
Other images from other films followed, in further visits to Poland and arthouse movie theaters in the US. In the 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i diament), a young patriot shoots a man he is convinced is part of the Communist Russian takeover of Poland. In fact, the assassin killed the wrong man – definitely once and possibly twice. Only twenty-four hours later, this assassin meets his inevitable fate. He is shot in the back. He attempts to hide from his pursuers among sheets hanging out to dry. His blood soaks through the sheets. I didn't understand all the implications of Ashes and Diamonds. I'm still not sure if it's a moral or an immoral movie. I do understand what I feel when I watch a beautiful young man stain sheets with his own blood.
In The Promised Land, (Ziemia obiecana) a 1975 film about the Industrial Revolution, robber barons celebrate while striking workers mass outside their mansions. A rock crashes through a window. The jagged rock is filmed with such skill and poetry that it becomes a character in the film. It demands, and gets, the viewer's full attention. Several moments of subsequent action are filmed from the rock's point of view. From the rock's perspective, the robber barons are marginalized and reduced in size. The rock is now in charge.
In A Love in Germany (Eine Liebe in Deutschland, 1983) race theory is demonstrated by Nazis investigating a Polish slave laborer who has had sex with a German woman. The Nazis use a tray that contains replicas of human eyeballs. Some eyeballs are typical of members of the master race; some eyeballs belong to life unworthy of life. The Pole is proven to be racially inferior. He is executed.
Maximilien Robespierre was the mastermind of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, which took the lives of an estimated 30,000 victims. He was known as "The Incorruptible." Robespierre, scrupulous gentleman and ruthless mass murderer, is perfectly captured in brief visual gestures in the 1983 film Danton. Robespierre meets with a former ally, Georges Danton. Danton, trying to seduce Robespierre and rescue their alliance, now strained by Robespierre's mass killings, offers him a repast of French delicacies. The luxurious meal says to Robespierre, "Life can be good. Kick back and enjoy."
Danton challenges Robespierre: you want people to perfect, like the characters in novels. If they are less than perfect, you execute them. You have to love people as they really are. Danton fills a goblet level with the brim – a glass impossible to lift without splashing. By offering this to Robespierre, Danton implies: if you want to engage with life as it is, you have to get messy.
Robespierre lifts the brimful glass of blood-red wine, and, defying physics, and exercising perfect self-control, he manages to sip from it, without spilling a drop. Robespierre later sends Danton to the guillotine. His head is dropped into a wicker basket seeping blood, a visual echo from The Wedding.
I delayed seeing 2007's Katyn. The title intimidated me – it left no elbow room for what the film would entail. It's like titling a movie Auschwitz. The bulk of the film is not spectacular, genocidal bloodletting, but, rather, a focus on widows and orphans stumbling through the aftermath, women and children who had no idea what happened to their husbands and fathers. It is not till the final moments that the eponymous massacre is depicted in cold, efficient scenes. Boxy Soviet trucks drive across a dirt road in a pine forest. Soviet soldiers open the back door of one truck; a Polish army officer emerges. The Soviets rapidly force the Pole's hands behind his back, tie his wrists and neck with rope, walk him to a mass grave, and shoot him in the back of the head. He falls forward. The Soviet soldiers walk back to the truck, and pull out another Polish officer. In the distance one hears shot after shot. This is assembly-line murder.
In the 1957 film Kanal, filthy and doomed Warsaw residents fight from sewers. The film's claustrophobia and sense of defilement gave me nightmares.
And finally two films that inspired me throughout my life. Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, 1976) and Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, 1981). In Man of Marble a woman filmmaker tries to tell a story. The Communist government will not allow her to tell her story. Thwarted, she returns in frustration to her childhood home and curls up on the couch. Her father, a plump blue-collar worker, listens to her. He tells her, "You have told your story. You just told me."
The story she wanted to tell was about a Stakhanovite, a Stalinist hero. I didn't know the word "Stakhanovite." What moved me so much about this film was the focus on a woman trying to tell a story, and being thwarted at every turn. I knew the experience from graduate school in the United States.
Andrzej Wajda directed all these films. He released artistically and politically relevant films from 1954 to 2016, the year he died at age 90. Poland, as the earnest man reminded us, has had a "peculiar" history. In the twentieth century, it was occupied by European colonialism, as part of the Hapsburg, German and Romanoff Empires, and by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Wajda lived this history. His father was murdered at Katyn. Wajda himself served in the anti-Nazi, underground Home Army.
No doubt Poland's "peculiar" history inspired Wajda, but his themes are universal. He dramatizes the individual against the collective, and against the tsunami tide of history. Wajda transcribes the conversations idealists have when they are constructing their Utopias, and Wajda itemizes the price exacted by those Utopias. Wajda's individuals do not plan to be martyrs, but just by being who they are, they confront, and often succumb to, the ultimate sacrifice. In the opening of Ashes and Diamonds, a Pole who has cheated death says to other Poles who are sick of constant, ideologically-motivated killing, "Today, tomorrow, or the day after, any one of us could die. Chin up. You have to do your duty while you are alive. That's the important thing."
I feel like the above-mentioned earnest young man, the man who wanted to show us a movie he assumed we didn't want to see, in my attempt to encourage you to see Wajda's final film. Powidoki, released in America as Afterimage on May 19, 2017, tanked at the American box office. It has brought in only $24,000. There's no love story, no hope, and very few laughs. And yet for me Afterimage was a fully satisfying experience, and I want you to see it.
It's 1948. Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a fifty-something painter with international standing, is teaching a plein air class. Hania, a new student, arrives. She is dewy and lovely, and carrying a bouquet of daisies. Strzeminski stands above her on a hill. He is silhouetted against the sky; one can see that he is missing an arm and a leg. He lost both in WW I. When Strzeminski sees Hania's arrival, he rolls down the hill to meet her. His adoring students joyously follow, rolling down after him. Strzeminski delivers a spontaneous lecture. He tells his students that we see only what we are able to see. After we close our eyes and look away, an afterimage, opposite in color to what we have seen, lingers. "Every choice is good," he says, "because it is yours." His students beam at him. Hania has just developed a crush.
This is the one moment of joy, freedom, love and success Afterimage allows. Thus, it reverses the conventional bio-pic narrative arch. Usually we witness an artist's salad days, being misunderstood, alone, and poor. Eventually the artist is discovered and the film ends on a triumphant note. Not in the world controlled by Soviet Communism.
Strzeminski is in on the floor of his dingy apartment. He is working on a painting when suddenly the white canvas, and the light in his apartment, turn red. A banner celebrating Stalin has been raised over his apartment building. Strzeminski punctures the banner with his crutch. He is arrested.
A representative of the worker's paradise lectures Strzeminski in a drab office. Historians frequently debate the question: who was worse: the Nazis or the Soviets? The Soviets certainly make less stylish cinematic villains. Strzeminski inhabits a purgatory for artists, where the Communist bad guys all wear bad suits and worse haircuts and look as if they just chowed down a trough-full of potatoes. Every light switch is haloed by the grime of hundreds of fingers. Unlike Nazi Germany, there are no sexy Hugo Boss threads or shiny leather boots in this people's dystopia.
The Communist reads to Strzeminski. It's a manifesto declaring that the line between art and politics has evaporated. Art must be used to advance the workers. Individualistic art that reflects merely the impressions of the artist is decadent.
Strzeminski must acknowledge that he wrote those words himself. (Indeed, in 1936, Strzeminski named his daughter "Jakobina" – a name shared with French Revolutionaries.) But that was years ago, he says. His views have changed. With this mention of changing views, we are reminded of the opening scene. When Strzeminski, the onscreen character, recounts his theories of vision and art, he is also providing the viewer with program notes for the movie. Vision, the biological function and the metaphorical mental process, changes over time. We can never accept one vision as complete.
"Whose side are you on?" he is asked.
"On my own side," Strzeminski replies.
The Communist mixes honey with his vinegar. Join the revolution, Strzeminski is told. Create art that meets the revolution's needs. You will be rewarded with money and power.
Confronting such lures, Strzeminski is implacable. He will continue to create the art that his own individual vision demands.
Strzeminski returns to his apartment and his teaching. The naïve viewer might conclude that that wasn't so bad. Strzeminski wasn't sent to a concentration camp. That is true. He was not. Under Nazism, Germans had to confront the moral dilemma of participation in efficient and immediate genocide. In the Soviet Empire, all you had to do to compromise yourself morally was raise your hand at the same time as everyone else at a Party meeting, or withhold a bowl of soup, or a tube of paint, as we shall see.
Another Communist, this one bald, and more menacing than the first, delivers another lecture about the role of the artist in the revolution: deviation is verboten. To understand him, we must remember that Marxism understands itself to be scientific truth. An artist who creates art that deviates from Marxism's demands is comparable to a doctor who attempts to treat cancer with snake oil. That doctor is killing his patient. The non-Marxist artist is poisoning society.
Back in class, Strzeminski is delivering a lecture about Van Gogh. We tend to think of Van Gogh's art as completely subjective. Surely sunflowers and stars don't look, in real life, the way they look in Van Gogh's paintings. No, Strzeminski says. Van Gogh's work is an objective record of Van Gogh's impression. Again, vision, literal or metaphorical, changes over time, and changes depending on the viewer. This is more than a throwaway observation in a country that has lived under several different forms of government in the past hundred years. Strzeminski insists that it is the artist's job to record his own impression. The vision that springs from his individuality – apart from governing ideology – is his sacred gift.
The lecture is disrupted. Strzeminski is fired. The Neoplastic Room, founded by Strzeminski and containing art by him and his sculptor wife, Katarzyna Kobro, is "liquidated." A former student is escaping Poland for Israel. She requests his artworks entitled "To My Friends the Jews." They were inspired by his witnessing of the Lodz Ghetto. She takes the artworks to Israel for safekeeping.
If nothing else, Strzeminski might have been able to comfort himself with the thought of his disciples, his students, who will carry his work into the future. No. The Party that could not efficiently deliver consumer goods delivers betrayal quite expertly. One of Strzeminski's acolytes is pressured to turn on him by "voting" against him. His other students put on an exhibition. Thugs arrive before the grand opening and destroy each work of art. Wajda's camera shoots the empty room of shredded canvas and broken glass. We hear approaching laughter and high spirits. It is Strzeminski and his young friends. They reach the door, open it, and witness what the Party has done to their individualism, their vision. Their laughter dies.
Strzeminski had created an artwork that the Party might embrace: a mosaic in an exotic-themed café. Africans labor under colonial oppression. Strzeminski arrives at the café to see chisels gauging his ceramic images out of the wall. He is a non-person; his art must be non-art, even if it flatters party obsessions.
Strzeminski, though a celebrated artist, had lived a simple life. Every day a plump matron brought him one bowl of soup and two slices of bread. Late in the film she arrives, smiling, and ladles his soup into his bowl. He admits that he can no longer pay. She dumps the soup back into her pot. "We'll talk when you can pay." She leaves. Strzeminski stares at the bowl. He licks it.
He takes work creating propaganda posters. He coughs. He is coughing blood. He wipes the blood on a red rag. The red of the Stalin poster that overwhelmed his apartment has co-opted, and is now sucking up, his essence. His red blood disappears into the red rag, as he disappears into the collective.
At least he can create his own art in his own time – no – he goes to a paint shop, where he has purchased supplies for years, and the clerk refuses to sell to him. He is no longer a member of the recognized painters' collective that has the right to buy paint.
At least he can escape with a trip to the movies with his young daughter. No. The newsreel before the film shows Aleksandr Laktionov's Socialist Realist painting, "Into the New Apartment." A smiling, babushka-clad woman, arms akimbo and a medal on her chest, gloats over her red-and-gold walled apartment. Her belongings are at her feet in a knotted rag bundle. Next to her, a Young Pioneer displays a portrait of Stalin. Strzeminski leaves the theater in disgust.
In addition to an artist's destruction by the state, Afterimage, in brief, subtle touches, gives us an intimate portrait of Strzeminski the man. He had been married to a sculptor, but he now has no contact with Kobro. She dies without his knowledge. Their daughter, going by the nickname "Nika," is lone mourner at Kobro's funeral. She marches to the grave in a red coat. Old women chide her. "It's the only coat I have!" Nika protests. She turns it inside out, displaying the black lining.
Strzeminski is angry. Why could he not attend the funeral? "She didn't want you there," Nika must inform him.
"I wanted to bring her blue flowers. She had such blue eyes. Like yours," he tells his daughter.
"You too have blue eyes," Nika says.
Strzeminski's student, Hania, has continued to bring him daisies. These bouquets are an irritant to Nika, who does not relish sharing her father's affection with an infatuated student not much older than herself. Nika throws the daisies into the garbage. The innocence the white flowers represent is discarded.
Strzeminski is unable to reciprocate Hania's crush. He takes a bouquet, dips it in blue pigment, and lays it on his wife's grave. An artist, he transforms the blank white canvas of the white flowers into a blue reflection of his eye, of a love gift to him into a love gift to another, a gift that emphasizes the bond between him, his wife, and his daughter. That he must "re-purpose" Hania's flowers demonstrates his desperate economic plight.
I asked poet Oriana Ivy what she thought of Wajda's use of blue. Ivy said, "In Polish 'blue' has the connotation of 'heavenly' and 'free.' Artists and other exceptional people can be called 'blue / heavenly birds.' Always said with envy. As my mother would say, he's the 'lover type, not the husband type.' His kingdom is not quite of this world. There is also a phrase, 'blue almonds.' It indicates unrealistic desires about what can't be."
Penniless, hungry, ill, Strzeminski is hospitalized. His friend, poet Julian Przybos, visits him. Przybos had joined the Polish Workers' Party. Przybos has medicine. The doctor is shocked. "Where did you get medicine?" he asks. "In Switzerland," Przybos responds. As a Party member and diplomat, he travels to the West, and purchases medicine that a Pole in Poland could not access. The doctor informs Przybos that it is the right medicine, but it is too late. Even so, Przybos says to Strzeminski, "I envy you. Through everything, you have remained yourself. You produce art that is a reflection of your individuality."
Strzeminski makes a final attempt to work. He will become a clothing store's window dresser. He makes a few attempts with naked, disjointed mannequins. He is overcome and collapses in a clutter of plastic arms and legs. Shoppers passing by the window do not notice him. An artist whose art it became a crime to display, a man missing an arm and a leg, dies on display, but without witnesses.
Wajda was himself a student in Lodz at the time of Strzeminski's persecution. There is a statue in Afterimage that looks very like the Stakhanovite statue at the center of Man of Marble. One has to wonder if Afterimage was not a very personal project for Wajda.
I find it hard to explain to Americans that though I lived in countries in Africa and Asia that are among the poorest in the world, I found Soviet-era Poland to be more depressing. In Africa, people had the sense that they could change their fate through their own choices. In Poland, I felt as if some behemoth was attempting to suffocate souls, and every breath was a heroic act of defiance. In visits to Poland and Czechoslovakia, my parents' homelands, I met men like Strzeminski. These were brilliant, ambitious men who had been erased by the state. They could not publish or have contact with their professional peers. They conversed with me, an American teenager, with the urgency of the wrongfully damned pleading their case to Dante. I rarely talk about these men because I know that most people would not begin to understand. I am intensely grateful to Andrzej Wajda for creating Afterimage. This is not a depressing film; it is a masterful, sympathetic evocation of one individual who, as Przybos said, never surrendered his individuality.
Boguslaw Linda's performance as Strzeminski is seamless. One sees no acting, only Strzeminski. Bronislawa Zamachowska, who, at only 13, played Nika, brings an astounding emotional gravity to her part and great heart to the film. Zofia Wichlacz's beautiful, unguarded face perfectly captures Hania's young, doomed, obsessive love. Krzysztof Pieczynski, as Julian Przybos, communicates the decency, craftiness, and regret of the man who played his cards right in a bad situation.
I want to show Afterimage to Bernie Sanders' supporters who like to chant, "Free college!" Free college, like free everything, has a hidden cost. This film depicts one potential cost.
This essay first appeared at FrontPageMag here