Perhaps the worst that can be said about Afterimage, the final film of acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died last October at 90, is that it feels like more of the same. A story of the revolutionary spirit snuffed out by the suffocating behemoth of authoritarian tyranny? Wajda diehards should be queueing around the block.
A downbeat biography of the Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (played by Boguslaw Linda), Afterimage captures the radical artist and teacher in the last years of his life. Early in the film, Strzemiński sits down to paint when an enormous red banner emblazoned with Stalin’s stern visage is hoisted over his window, dampening his only light source. The message is plain, even a bit obvious: Sovietism, with its propagandistic place of pride given to the single-minded collective, is casting a shadow over the expression of the individual.
Where Afterimage suffers is in gliding over the more meaningful successes of Strzemiński’s early career. Wjada offers only glimpses of the radical potential of the painter’s early work, and his treatises on vision and the act of seeing. Save for an oddly upbeat opening sequence in which Strzemiński giddily log-rolls down a provincial bluff while leading a landscape painting expedition, he seems already beat-down, half-defeated, as much a defiant individualist as an isolated loner.
Afflicted by the twin oppressors of late-stage tuberculosis and a new cultural mandate privileging realist art squaring with Soviet ideology, and short an arm and a leg from injuries sustained in the Great War, Strzemiński’s prospects seem hopelessly narrow, his choices fewer and fewer. As one of the film’s many feckless Soviet bureaucrats puts it, describing the new realist arts program, “in these times, we have only one choice.” And of course, a single choice is no choice at all.
Strzemiński resists the best he can, lobbying former colleagues to be reinstated at the college he teaches at, and hosting quasi-clandestine meetings with students in his apartment. In less capable hands, Afterimage may be a mawkish story of against-all-odds historical uplift. You know the kind: the Noble Underdog wailing against the crushing brutality of The System, a film that ends with the teacher’s faithful students standing tall behind him and reciting O Captain! My Captain! A lesser director would find uplift in the misfortune. Not Wajda.
As glum as it may seem – to the point of playing, in places, like a parody of a despondent Eastern European art-house drama – Afterimage succeeds in knowingly succumbing to the tragedy of Strzemiński’s story. His stand against the Soviets, and his defence of individualism and formalism, feels facile, even a bit stupid. In a late sequence, in which the artist is reduced to taking work dressing mannequins in a shop window and ends up smashing the plastic models in a rage, Wajda finds a desolate, despairing image of one of Poland’s most prominent painters flailing impotently against his faceless, machine-made tormentors. It’s sad, even a little pitiable. But then it’s meant to be.
Afterimage takes its name from shapes that, as the Strzemiński character explains early in the film, linger in the eye after it has been exposed to an image – like the dim, fuzzy little phantoms that cloud our vision after staring too long at a light bulb. With his final film, Wajda crafts his own denunciatory afterimage of Poland under the USSR: a place that is downbeat, that is gloomy and bleak, that ground noble intellectuals and artists into nothing.
For Wajda, a filmmaker who lived and worked during this regime, Afterimage may not serve as some sunny send off or uplifting plaudit. But for a filmmaker who was frequently drawn back to the subject of suffering, and especially the anguish of the individual cast against the collective will of cruel, foolish authority, it’s a perfectly fitting farewell.
Afterimage plays the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall starting Feb. 1.Report Typo/Error
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