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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Bottom Photo: Inevitably, Franek and Jozek
(Maciej Stuhr) find answers.
Photo Credits: Menemsha Films