It’s 1945 and the struggle against totalitarianism is just beginning. While the people of Western Europe celebrate the end of Hitlerism and look forward to years of Marshall Plan aid, the people of Eastern Europe brace themselves for Stalinism. Or, as the Polish Home Army would say, “We await you, Red Plague, to deliver us from the Black Death.”
Director Andrzej Wajda, who died last year at the age of 90, fought in the Home Army against the Nazis, while his father was killed in the infamous Katyn Massacre by Soviet troops. He made quite a few films dealing with the period in his long career, but initially studied painting in Krakow. His final film, ‘Afterimage’, dealing with the last years in the life of real-life painter Władysław Strzemiński, is thus in some part inspired by his own experiences.
Wajda uses a strong brush to tell his story. Our painter is interrupted from his work as a large portrait of Stalin obscures his window. He punches a hole in the thing to let the light in, leading to predictably dire consequences. But this is, in fact, Wladyslaw’s only attempt at open rebellion. Mainly, he is content to keep his head down and concentrate on his abstract painting. But it is the terrible logic of totalitarianism that it is not content to control people’s actions, it must also invade their minds. Wladyslaw’s major crime lies not in what he does but in his refusal to actively participate in the system—not in what he says but what he does not say.
Most of the story is set in 1948, not quite coincidentally the year George Orwell wrote ‘1984’. Participation in the morning hate is mandatory. Perhaps an individual’s ultimate freedom lies in the right to remain silent. But even this is taken away. Abstract painting, seen in the West as largely apolitical, is here a threat to the system merely by refusing to endorse it.
Wladyslaw is fired from his teaching position and gets a job painting likenesses of Stalin. A capable painter, he turns out to be quite good at this, but is again fired as his licence has been revoked. Ultimately, he is even refused permission to buy paint. There is no place left to run to.
The ultimate irony is that Wladyslaw used to support the revolution, in 1917 when it was still fresh and seemed set to liberate those who had so long been oppressed. This had gotten him into trouble with the previous, nationalistic government. Three decades later, and the communists have become exactly what they set out to oppose. Different ideology, same shit.
The true artist must always stand against whatever is the thought police of the day. As an artist, he can do nothing else. Whatever the personal cost. Władysław Strzemiński was a rare, brave soul in one of the darkest days of mankind. We can only hope that those days won’t come again.
The Polish Film Days have been held at Bíó Paradís in late April since 2012 in conjunction with the Polish Embassy. They are quite a boon for Reykjavík’s burgeoning Polish-speaking community and are also a welcome opportunity for locals to see some of the best cinema from a country that has become so connected with ours. (There are even Polish-Icelandic sausages now, fusing a beloved staple from both countries’ kitchens.) The marquee title at this year’s Polish Film Days, ‘Afterimage’ is still screening, so you can still get a taste of Polish culture there.