Film Review: Afterimage

Lust for Art: Artists Versus Apparatchiks

Filmmaker Andrzej Wajda was to Poland what Sergei Eisenstein was to the USSR – and, arguably, what Carl Yastrzemski was to the Boston Red Sox.  Along with Roman Polanski’s early work, Wajda’s famed 1950s World War II-era trilogy about Polish partisans battling the Nazis – A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds – put Poland on the world cinema map.  He won an Honorary Oscar in 2000 and died last October at age 90 after making movies for more than 60 years.

Like “Yaz,” Afterimage hits a homerun.  Poland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film to the 89th Academy Awards is a biopic about that Eastern European nation’s greatest 20th century painter Władysław Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda), a constructivist contemporary of Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.  With this talent, Wajda found a subject through which he could express his credo as an artiste – and criticism of Stalinism.

In his youth, Strzemiński had been a revolutionary, but after the political avant-garde took power in post-WWII Poland and became an authoritarian establishment, imposing its dictums upon the arts, Strzemiński adamantly stuck to his creative guns.  His “formalism” put Strzemiński on a collision course with the Stalinists’ “socialist realism,” a banal representational style intended to pictorialize party policies and ideology that wasn’t really socialist or realistic.

Afterimage is fundamentally a film about abstract artists versus apparatchiks, as painters battle bureaucrats and the secret police.  [PLOT SPOILER ALERT:] Wajda brilliantly visualizes this early in the movie: Circa 1950, as Strzemiński prepares to paint on a blank canvas Poles outside his studio window hoist a huge banner emblazoned with Stalin’s image.  This blots out the clear light entering through the windows, casting a symbolic red hue on the surface of Strzemiński’s canvas.  Angered, using a crutch he tears a hole in the banner in order to literally see the light, leading to the painter’s arrest.

The heartbreaking film follows the disabled Strzemiński (who’d lost an arm and leg in World War I) as he boldly pursues his artistic vision – instead of the party line – in his studio and at the National School of Fine Arts in Łódź (Wajda attended film school at Łódź), where students pay rapt attention to every word the popular maestro utters.  The Stalinists proceed to “disappear” the diffident (if not dissident) Strzemiński from the Neo-Plastic room at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and at the university.  At one confrontation the minister of culture tells the professor: “You should be hit by a tram.”

Nevertheless, his pupils bravely rally to their beloved if beleaguered “Mr. Chips.”  Among other things, they put themselves in harm’s way by “borrowing” a typewriter to clandestinely transcribe the book Strzemiński is dictating, “Theory of Vision.”  Considering her professor to be a “prophet,” Hanna (a blonde beauty poignantly played by Zofia Wichlacz, who is smitten with the painter) risks the wrath of the secret police by typing up his ideas.  Another university disciple, Roman (Tomasz Wlosok), is drummed out of the party for daring to resist condemnation of his instructor.

Strzemiński’s daughter (heart-achingly played by 14-year-old Bronislawa Zamachowska) also suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune triggered by her recalcitrant father’s crusade.  She clearly loves her father and repeatedly admonishes him for smoking too much.  Nika’s parents are separated – her mother, a renowned sculptress, is hospitalized and the hapless schoolgirl bounces from one home to another.

As Stalinist stooges pressure those in all creative endeavors to extol the party’s virtues, the undaunted Strzemiński insists, “Art imposes its truth on reality.”  The personal cost an artist pays is revealed, as hardships are heaped upon the single-minded dauber, his young daughter and supporters.  In this sense it’s interesting to compare Afterimage to the Hollywood version of the starving artist suffering for his art, epitomized by Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin.  The Post-Impressionists’ deprivations were largely due to societal indifference in the West, owing to narrow-mindedness and commercial forces driving the art market.

On the other hand, ideologically-driven party hacks were anything but indifferent to Strzemiński, whom they scorned and persecuted.  But this doesn’t mean that the capitalist state always maintains a laissez faire attitude towards its artists – at the same time the real life Strzemiński was being blackballed in Stalinist Poland, the Hollywood Blacklist purged leftists (and others who refused to become informers) from working in the motion picture industry, and talents such as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo were even fined and imprisoned.

Wajda may have identified with Władysław Strzemiński as a metaphor for how authoritarianism cripples human beings, in particular creative individuals who strive to fulfill their singular aesthetic vision. Strzemiński is depicted by one of Poland’s top leading men, Boguslaw Linda, who portrayed the ultra-leftist Saint Just opposite Gerard Depardieu in Wajda’s 1983 rumination on the French Revolution, Danton, and in Wajda’s 1981 Man of Iron.  His final film, Afterimage is a brilliant distillation of Wajda’s filmmaking, capping a stellar career that spanned seven decades.

Shortly before Afterimage was released in the USA, the documentary Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon had its West Coast premiere during the 12th annual South East European Film Festival.  In nonfiction terms Andrea Simon’s film exposes similar situations vis-à-vis Stalinists and artists in Bulgaria, as the tumultuous life and work of the eponymous 94-year-old screenwriter and novelist is recounted.  Like Strzemiński – and, indeed, Wajda – Angel Wagenstein had his clashes with those party paper pushers and bureaucrats who somehow knew more about art than, you know, the artists.  Perhaps these films, both coming out around the same time, will lead to a reappraisal of Eastern European cinema in the West, which often overlooks the films created on the other side of the “Iron Curtain” during the Cold War. If so, Afterimage may leave moviegoers with an afterglow.

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