The plane lands at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. Carrying nothing more than a small zippered bag filled with American cigarettes, a man disembarks and heads to the train station. The taxi driver guesses he has just arrived on the 11 a.m. flight from Chicago, but the man is surly and in no mood to chat. The train takes him to a bus. Hours pass. It is already dark when he finally arrives in the rural Polish village where he was born.
Franek (Ireneusz Czop) has been living in the U.S. for 20 years, but when he walks into his family’s farmhouse, he says to his brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr): “It looks exactly the same.”
This is the set-up of a remarkable feature film called Aftermath which is now rolling out across the U.S. after its initial release in New York and Los Angeles in October. Aftermath achieved broad success—and created considerable controversy—in Poland. It won the Journalists Award from the Gdynia [Poland] Film Festival in 2012, and three Eagle awards from the Polish Film Academy in 2013. It also won the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2013.
One brother left Poland in 1981 (the year General Jaruzelski imposed martial law in order to forestall a Soviet invasion); the other stayed to care for their aging parents and maintain his claim to their property. This intentionally metaphorical structure is essential to Aftermath’s powerful impact. Going versus staying; embracing the potential of a new path versus holding on to what one already knows; exposing the past versus embracing mythology; all of these polarities are explored in this tale of two brothers. The “truth” is very complicated. New opportunities turn out to be just as double-edged as all the old facts you thought you already knew, and the past has a tight grip that cannot be easily shaken.
Franek has come home for answers without having any idea of what the real questions are. And Jozek, who thinks he already knows the ground on which he stands, cannot avoid the inevitable when Franek digs deeper than he had thought to go.
Since this is a review for the JUF News, it will be no surprise to my readers that the central mystery is simply this: what happened to the Jews? Franek and Jozek grew up in a Poland that had no Jews. Everyone in the village knows the Jews were deported by the Germans, and the Polish people—who were also victims of Nazi tyranny—could do nothing to save them. Everyone knows that, right? Well, not quite.
Ireneusz Czop gives a riveting performance as Franek. After 20 years in Chicago, where he presumably saw dozens of films and hundreds of television shows, Franek knows “the hero” never stops until “his case” is solved. And so he is literally compelled to keep asking questions long after everyone—including Jozek—wants him to stop. The more people try to intimidate Franek, the more firm he becomes in his resolve. The screenplay by writer/director Władysław Pasikowski makes the implicit explicit: as difficult as the transition has been for him, Franek is an American now. He is a man used to exercising his rights and having a say.
Jozek, by contrast, has grown up without rights, and Maciej Stuhr brilliantly embodies a man feeling his way—half-stumbling—into the new world of post-Soviet Poland. Jozek’s sense of right and wrong is emotional, and his faith is religious. He never appeals to the authorities because he doesn't trust them. Jozek does what he does without considering the consequences. Without Franek, Jozek would never probe. Dogged suffering is already second nature to him, and martyrdom is almost a relief.
Pasikowski has numerous film credits, and was also the director of two seasons of the TV series The Cop, which, according to my press kit, was “hailed by critics as the ‘best Polish crime series ever.’” The decision to use these tropes was a wise one. Presenting Franek’s obsessive quest to find “the answer” in this way makes his behavior broadly relatable to people all around the world who have also come to see this figure—be he a public servant or a private investigator—as the champion of an open society.
Paweł Edelman, the Director of Photography, does a superlative job, guiding the audience through scenes that are often low-lit and deliberately murky. The sound design team (Jan Freda, Bartek Putkiewicz, and Jan Schermer) also does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension in the ominous darkness.
Inevitably the Jews return at the end of the film. We are not actors in this drama, but what Franek learns is just as much our history as his, and Aftermathwill affect Jews in Chicago just as much as Poles in Warsaw.
Aftermath opened on Friday at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. Click here for scheduling information.
Top Photo: Franek (Ireneusz Czop) relentlessly seeks “the truth.”
Bottom Photo: Inevitably, Franek and Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) find answers.
Photo Credits: Menemsha Films