Afterimage is the English-language title of the last film from the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He died aged 90 after completing the film but before its general release. ‘Afterimage’ is a concept taken from the teachings of the artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, the subject of this partial biopic. It occurs to met that there was a UK-based independent film magazine with the title Afterimage published between 1970 and 1987, focusing on avant-garde and political cinema. (There are also more recent North American magazines with similar titles.) I don’t know whether any of these magazine are directly connected to Strzeminski’s ideas, which were collected in a book titled Theory of Vision written by the artist-teacher wrote over many years and finished in the late 1940s, although not published until 1958. The book has been said to be about “an understanding of the evolution of man’s visual consciousness” (see this post on a MOMA blog).
This film begins with a brief sequence in which a new student comes looking for Strzeminski who has taken his class out into the countryside around Lodz to learn about landscape painting. Hanna (Zofia Wichlacz) is amazed when the Professor rolls down a grassy slope and struggles to his feet before her. He lost his left arm and his right leg during the First World War but he is more than capable of teaching and painting. A few months/years later in 1948, when Hanna has become one of his most enthusiastic students, Strzeminski (in a powerful performance by Boguslaw Linda) becomes a target for the bully boys of the new Polish Communist Party regime. The attack is led by the Minister of Culture who is determined to remove all opposition to the Stalin-backed school of ‘socialist realism’. Strzeminski is an internationally-recognised avant-garde artist interested in abstract art and opposed to any defined genre of painting, telling his students they should not be producing the same kinds of painting each time but should instead challenge themselves to produce something new.
His students are devoted followers and a new exhibition of work is being planned. Strzeminski also has a ‘neoplastic’ gallery in the city, showcasing his formalist paintings alongside new furniture designs and plastic sculptures in a gallery painted in block colours. But the new regime is ruthless, it will literally employ thugs to smash the artworks and will steadily undermine the artist to the extent that he will be penniless and starving (an ID and a job are needed to get food stamps). Despite the support of his students, Strzeminski goes into an inevitable decline and dies in 1952.
As well as the attacks on his teaching and painting, Strzeminski is also involved in a family melodrama. As the narrative opens, he is separated from his wife, a sculptor, who is dying in hospital. His young teenage daughter Nika has had a difficult life, spending time in a children’s home. She visits her father, concerned about his welfare but also angry with him for resisting the inevitable attacks by the state and perhaps jealous of the support given him by Hanna. This could be one of those conventional stories of an artist who can’t cope with personal emotions because he is driven by his artistic expression, but I think that Wajda knows how to handle that and how to maintain the narrative of the political repression. On the other hand, I would like to know what happened to his daughter (and to Hanna). The character in the film seems to have the strength to get through the next thirty years.
Afterimage is available on MUBI in the UK, but tucked away in a section simply entitled ‘Recently Added’. There are some brief reviews alongside the streaming offer and though most are very supportive, there are a couple of negative ones. The charge that the film is ‘boring’ is nonsense but the observation that this is a ‘one note’ conventional drama about an avant-garde artist is more substantial. The film is indeed offered with a realist historical drama aesthetic, which in some ways does seem odd when its subject was so opposed to realist art at this point. The Stalinist idea behind ‘socialist realism’ was that all art should be supportive of the ideology of workers’ struggle, so art must show heroic workers building the socialist state. My feeling has always been that socialist realist films (also prevalent in China in the 1950s) offer something similar to Hollywood realism but with the promotion of working-class heroes and ideologies in an exaggerated manner. Afterimage is certainly, in structural terms, a ‘bourgeois film’ covering the crucial last four years in the artist’s life but visually, its realist aesthetic doesn’t glorify the period, grading the colour so that the palette is dominated by sombre shades, except for Strzeminski’s paintings and ironically, the reds of government propaganda. What we don’t get are any attempts to use formal expressive devices to present the narration or to create specific meanings. There is relatively little music. What there is diegetic with the contrast between the records played and the May Day parade of propaganda, echoed by the speech Nina learns for her part in the celebrations. In rare moments music is used to underpin the emotional impact of the next step in the degradation of the artist and there are moments in the melodrama when actions could be viewed as ‘excessive’. I’m thinking of a sequence in which Strzeminski is given a job window dressing and the combination of his weak physical health and the difficulty of manoeuvring around the mannequins with his physical disabilities produces a kind of grotesque dance.
I can live with Wajda’s aesthetic in the film. The important point is that this was Wajda’s last film and he was no doubt aware that this was the case. He was personally invested in the story. He had been a student at the Lodz Film School in the early 1950s. He had actually begun as a fine art student in Kraków. Whether he ever met Strzeminski or not, I don’t know, but he would have been familiar with the quandary that faced all kinds of artists in Poland during the Cold War – how to maintain integrity and attempt a critique of the society without censorship and ultimately exclusion. Wajda later asserted that his best work was achieved because of attempts to suppress it – because he was forced to pursue allegory and metaphor to smuggle commentary into a range of films. I certainly found Afterimage to be a gripping example of political cinema. It does look wonderful in ‘Scope framings by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and the presentation of Lodz in 1950 is very impressive. Wajda exerts an iron control over the narrative and I felt that although I knew the outline of the story from many other films, I was still impressed by the way in which Wajda showed every aspect of the campaign by the Ministry of Culture to not only destroy Strzeminski as an artist but also to expunge his history and to ensure that his legacy would be difficult to access. The ending of the film is significant for what it doesn’t show. We might expect credits explaining his legacy or showing a later re-instatement, but the screen fades to black.