When Andrzej Wajda died last October, the obits didn’t exactly pile up. Despite their availability in sparkling Criterion editions, the Polish director’s films deserve rediscovery for their commitment to linear narrative. While contemporaries experimented with or abjured storytelling altogether, Wadja created Kanal, A Generation, and Man of Iron as rebukes to a communist system based on lies. This is how the truth should look, these films suggested.
Afterimage is a fitting epitaph, for better or worse, often better. This account of the hounding of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who lost an arm and a leg in the Great War, has no fat. Or ambiguity. A professor in Lodz’s School of Visual Arts, Strzeminksi refused to kowtow to Soviet realism, at its apogee or nadir at the beginning of the 1950s; he correctly judged it kitsch. In the most breathtaking sequence, a bare canvas, awaiting Strzeminski’s imagination to fill it, suddenly gets shaded in red. Then the whole room. A monstrous scarlet banner commemorating Stalin is being hung from the building. It’s a small touch, but a perfect symbolic one: the Red Army that marched into Poland and broke its promise to oversee free elections has smothered the artistic lives of the conquered. Furious, Strzeminski jabs at the banner with a crutch. Bit by bit the Polish Communist Party exacts revenge, first by stripping him of his school duties, then not issuing vouchers for food, and, in a final indignity, refusing to let him purchase art supplies.
The situation’s inherent pathos gets Wadja off the hook several times. It’s not that Afterimage lacks nuance or doesn’t find a form commensurate with Strzeminski’s radical art: it’s that Strzeminski remains an ideologue, a symbol of rebellion – obstinately so. No layers to unpeel, no subtleties to puzzle over. If you can, rewatch Kanal when you’ve finished Afterimage, savoring the first stirrings of that organized Polish resistance to a different sort of totalitaranism. Then finish with Man of Iron, which shows how Strzeminski’s heirs eventually won. Wadja deserves no less.