Neely Swanson

“Aftermath” – Secrets and Lies [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Józek (Maciej Stuhr) in shock after unearthing their family’s secret. Photo courtesy Menemsha Films, Inc.

Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Józek (Maciej Stuhr) in shock after unearthing their family’s secret. Photo courtesy Menemsha Films, Inc.

“Aftermath,” a small award-winning Polish film written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski opens old wounds and tackles everlasting questions of guilt, innocence, greed, superstition, rationalization and deep-seated hatred.

Frank, having left his small village in Poland for Chicago some 20 years before, returns inexplicably, ostensibly to reconnect with his younger brother Josef. His arrival, known to all in the village, is eyed suspiciously. His true purpose is to find out what is going on with his brother, as Josef’s wife and children have recently arrived on his doorstep in Chicago with vague tales of unrest. There will be no hometown celebration for a long lost son of the village, viewed by most as a stranger and by others as disloyal. He is greeted coldly by Josef who still resents the fact that his brother left and never returned for the funerals of his parents.

Josef, like everyone else in the small village, is a peasant farmer, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them. But Josef has uncovered a secret, one that makes everyone resentful and begins to rain down dire consequences. Happenstance led Josef to a little used road built with unusual “cobble” stones by the Nazis during the occupation. The pavement stones were actually the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery. Josef, like most of the other villagers his age, had been unaware that there had ever been Jews in their town. Morally it was wrong, he felt, to pave over the grave markers, as the town planned to do. So, instead, he began digging up the markers and buying others where he found them – on other farms, around town, and even at the local church. The new young priest, with the encouragement of the other peasants, has strongly argued against taking the markers from the church property, but the older, soon-to-be retired priest counsels him to take them, but do it unobtrusively, as doing the morally righteous thing can be complicated. Josef has gone so far as to set up a monument in his wheat fields of these gravestones, like obelisks rising from the earth. Frank is totally perplexed by Josef’s actions, especially as Josef is every bit as anti-Semitic as he is, holding to the belief that most of their financial ills, both in Poland and Frank’s in Chicago, are the result of a Jewish-led conspiracy. Even Josef can’t explain his motivation.

Hostilities against Josef and Frank increase and rise alarmingly as Frank uncovers unexpected details about the former Jewish residents. When Josef is denied a loan on his property because there are “irregularities” with the title, Frank makes a shocking discovery. All of the farms on the rich, arable land owned by Josef and his neighbors belonged to the former Jewish residents. The farms of their father and that of the other villagers lay not on the meadow but in the difficult marshlands.

But what became of the Jews? There are few left in the village  old enough to remember Jewish neighbors. But live there they did, 26 families, almost 100 Jews; until one day, and it really was just one day, they didn’t.

The Nazis did occupy the town for a short period of time, but there is no historical record to indicate that the Jewish residents were deported. But there are a few souls who do remember and have kept silent for 60 years – some from guilt, some from greed and some from fear. The implications of what actually transpired leave no one, including Josef, untouched.

Telling his story, step by step, slowly deepening the hostility that, at first, looks only to be that of the insular peasant suspicious of outsiders or unexplained acts, Pasikowski reveals layer upon layer of complicity heightened by the continued heinous acts of the children of the complicit, eager to maintain the secrets and ill-gotten goods of the past. The pacing, for the most part, adds to the tension and gives much of the film the aspect of a thriller, although the director would have been better served if he had cut 10-15 minutes from the build-ups. The virulent anti-Semitism that has always plagued the Poles (although they are not alone) is rationalized and encouraged by their religious belief that the Jews killed Christ, a notion not disabused by the young priest who has been sent to replace the older, more tolerant curate. That the Pope who publicly disavowed Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus, a disavowal that was almost 2,000 years in the making, was the German Bishop of Rome and not the long-lived and long-serving Polish pontiff is an irony that should not go unnoticed.

The acting is first rate. Maciej Stuhr, as Josef, won the Eagle, the Polish equivalent of an Oscar, as best actor. Ireneus Czop as Frank is equally good. Pasikowski is extremely effective at maintaining a feeling of dread on the audience along with an impending sense of doom. Based on an event that did transpire in Poland during World War II, “Aftermath” effectively and affectively uncovers the rawness bred by fear, loathing, greed and prejudice. It’s tough to watch but the substance makes it a journey worth taking.

Opening Friday November 15 at the Laemmle Royal, the Town Center and the Playhouse 7.

 

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