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Saturday, 24 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (33) - AFTERIMAGE (Andrzej Wajda, Poland). Reviewed by Barrie Pattison

Andrzej Wadja was the greatest film maker of the Communist world and beyond. He left behind a string of brilliant works - Popiól i diament/Ashes & Diamonds, Popioli/Ashes, Ziemia obiecana Land of Promise, Czlowiek z zelaza/Man of Iron, Katyn. His final film (he died aged 90),  Powidoki/Afterimage is the work of a major artist, every composition and edit shows this. The question of whether it is a work of art - or revenge or a cautionary tale or an act of contrition tends to over ride this.

Longtime associate Boguslaw Linda, Saint-Just in Wadja’s Danton (France, 1983), plays one-armed one-legged celebrity artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, first seen in 1949 greeting new student Zofia Wichlacz (also in Spoor, Agnieszka Holland, Poland, 2016) by rolling down the hill to join her. What happens to the lively red-head whose panties show when she does the same thing?

He’s revered by his students at Lódz School of Plastic Arts and design and has his admired gallery abstract exhibit “The Neo Plastic Room” there. The Communist authorities reproach him with his thirties quote saying that art should serve the state and deal with him with increasing severity when he fails to conform. Cutting a hole in the Stalin Banner unrolled down the front of his apartment block to let in the light (compare Burned by the Sun or the Tsui Hark Maoist era film) accelerates the process.

When he’s dismissed the students rally round him, stealing a typewriter for Wichlacz to work on his book but the students’ exhibition at the WMCA (the only venue that will have them) is broken up by a truck full of thugs.

We never see his estranged sculptor wife. His teenaged daughter (“She’ll have a hard life”) is rebuked for turning out to her mother’s funeral in a red coat, though it is the only one she has and her joy is in marching in a borrowed uniform carrying a portrait placard in the political parade. She decides she’d rather live in the children’s home than in the apartment to which Wichlacz has the key. Her last appearance is in a pair of borrowed shoes to convince Linda that she will be all right in the winter.

The pressure increases as a friend gets him a spot at the P.S.S. co-op, painting Stalin portraits and he’s so good at it that the Rail Workers Union want to poach him. Even that is taken away from him. His membership of the artist’s union, of which he was one of the founders, is cancelled meaning he can no longer buy paints (“Those who don’t work, don’t eat”) so he tries to put a spin on it by taking the daughter to the movies with the money, only to be faced by a documentary on Socialist Realist art c.f. the incriminating footage the Germans show in Katyn or even Oliver Stone running Dr. Strangelove for Vlad Putin. 

His old associate party official offers him money, work and recognition - existence! - if he will conform and Linda is dismissive. He, of course, coughs blood. The final image of the disconnected hand swinging in the window the passersby don’t notice is extraordinarily evocative - if a further downer.

The subdued colour is a match for the film’s grim mood and for the duo tone of the film processing of the socialist era. It occasionally becomes key - the banner turning the light in his room red, the flowers he dyes blue to lay on the separated wife’s grave or the daughter’s coat.


Performance, setting and film form are impeccable. This is recognisably the view that the artist community held of the Communists in the fifties and, with Wadja’s stamp on it, that perception gains weight.

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