Andrzej Wajda’s last film, Afterimage, presents an argument about visual art in a crushingly realistic, Stalinist drama, a biopic of renowned Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda), whose theory of Unism advocated for art (specifically painting) to be self-contained works of purity without contrast. They have no ideology nor morals, but are singular forms of abstraction.
Debating this theory within the story of its creation, Wajda combats the trudging poverty and hardship confronted by those artists who didn’t agree to the communist government’s increasingly nationalist policies with a focus on visual anarchy in form, slipping flashes of color and freedom in between sequences of urban squalor. Art escapes its bounds through Strzemiński’s teaching, friends in the art community and when facing the questions and judgements of his young daughter (the Sphinx-faced Bronislawa Zamachowska).
Yet despite his influence and talent, Strzemiński refuses to cow to the government. Wrestling with his conscience and his empty stomach, Strzemiński refuses to be drafted as a political soldier and suffers the ostracized consequences of the blacklist. His students fight for and alongside him in a sort of Soviet Dead Poets Society, but their efforts become either highly politicized or romantically-inclined, both of which drive Strzemiński further into his stubborn artistic isolation.
A wonderfully heartfelt performance by Linda as the systematically bullied artist draws the eye with every facial nuance. And that the character is without an arm and a leg merely adds to the eccentric affection. His hobble, his way of eating, his painting and the way he lights lights his cigarettes all contribute to an idiosyncratic picture of a man whose life has been built upon tragic pride. He didn’t ask for help when he lost limbs in the first World War — why should he ask for it now? His theory of unity extends to himself.
The inclusion of a daughter, students and a published work all point to what remains and what we pass on. This portrait of an aging artist engages with and refuses the idea that artistic and social isolation is anything but selfish. In the face of totalitarianism, an artist has a responsibility to fight back. In fact, their influences will pass on to those around them whether they intend it to or not. The recipients are the true focus of the film, those with the hope needed to escape crushing corruption and sludgy streets. Zamachowska wears a bright red coat to a funeral not only because it’s her only one, but because she has not yet been beaten down by society. She still believes in the future, she still has patriotism when marching in a parade.
The most gripping and violent piece of cinematography in the film (shot in tragic Caravaggio-esque shadows by Pawel Edelman) comes during the brutal vandalism of the students’ art (not any of the misfortunes suffered by the subject). Strzemiński is the old guard of art and politics, someone whose revolutionary stance changed too late in life to do anything but inspire those that came after. Wajda’s loving examination of heroes has reached its logical conclusion in Afterimage, with the study of Strzemiński as unforgiving as the winter. Where Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake’s descent into abject poverty is shown as noble, Afterimage is a bleak reminder of the legacy we leave behind, and it’s particularly affecting given the recent death of the prolific director.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.