The last film that the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda made before his death in October, 2016, is a profound and important stand for artistic freedom and a condemnation of censorship. “Afterimage” is also a deeply human story about a real-life artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who dared to stick to his vision of art ad theory in the face of persecution by the Communist regime in Poland during the early 1950s. It is one of the most important films of this year thus far not only because of the issues raised but because it is a fine example of Wajda’s principles and artistry.
Bogulsaw Linda gives a memorable portrayal of the controversial artist, around whom students gather to absorb his theory that the eye retains images from viewing art. We learn during the film that the reason he is missing one leg and one arm was a blast when he served during World War I. Strzeminski has learned to deftly deal with his handicap. His personality is partly established when students see him rolling down a hill as the easiest way for him to descend.
The artist has a teenage daughter Nika (13-year-old Bronislawa Zamachowska), who must grapple with her parents being divorced. (Her mother, Katarzyna Kobro, was a sculptor.) Nika wants a close relationship with her father, and it is clear he loves her despite his tendency to withdraw into his own world. A young student becomes attached to Strzeminski, who doesn’t want any intimate relationship with her, but when she begins to run things in his meager living quarters, Nika becomes jealous. As we see later in the film the artist harbors a lingering fondness for his ex-wife.
The most upsetting parts of the story involve authorities abolishing an exhibit of his work, defacing his murals and seeing that his opportunities for employment are squashed. He also loses food stamps and, with his lack of money, is literally going hungry. In one pitiful scene the woman who assists him withdraws a bowl of soup that she has poured when he can’t give her the back pay he owes.
The artist is attacked because he refuses to paint the kind of works that the authorities demand as part of the so-called Soviet realism. He is an avant-garde painter with his own stubborn vision. In real life Strzeminski was friendly with other important artists, including Marc Chagall. Students loyal to their mentor take risks standing up for him.
The film can, of course, be seen in the context of censorship anywhere in the world apart from the specificity of Poland at the time. Wajda is at his best in telling the story scripted by Andrzej Mularczyk. There are ample examples of the artist’s work, and the director accomplishes the challenge of keeping a focus on both the overall anti-censorship theme and the human toll that it can take. The tragedy climaxes when Strzeminski is reduced to doing work involving store window decoration. But nothing would compel him to abandon his principles right to the end of his life. “Afterimage” is a fitting finale to Wajda’s career that has included such vital films as “Canal,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Man of Marble,” “Man of Iron” and “Katyn.” A Film Movement release. Reviewed May 18, 2017.