The Polish film “Pokłosie” (“Aftermath”), currently on release in the U.S., contributes to the popular understanding of the Holocaust and Polish history in an unusual way. Neither the Holocaust nor any event in Polish history occur during the story, which is set entirely in Poland during the last decade. Instead, director Wladyslaw Pasikowski and producer Dariusz Jablonski explore the relationship between Poles and the Jewish past of their country through the tensions around family and community.
What “Aftermath” does is to put Polish Christians back into the history of the Holocaust. Generally nations try to write themselves into history. They exaggerate their accomplishments, backdate their origins, and assert their importance to the rest of the world. The exception is the Holocaust. The nations of continental Europe, whether they were German allies or under German occupation, have sought to write themselves out of the genocide of European Jews. Most of these countries have portrayed the Holocaust as having involved the Germans and the Jews, an event with no local context. We are asked to believe that the local populations, such as the Polish Christians, were helpless bystanders.
Using an apparently simple plot, “Aftermath” sets out to undermine this history without local context. Franek Kalina returns to his native village for the first time in 20 years after his brother Jozek’s marriage has collapsed. There is no warmth between the brothers. A Pole in the Chicago construction business, Franek was away when his parents died, a source of regret for him and bitterness from Jozek who he left behind to deal with the consequences. What has happened is that Jozek, quite by chance, has discovered some Jewish tombstones that he then saved by placing them in his wheat field as a makeshift memorial. The village has turned on Jozek, fearful of what his disturbing of the past will do.
The dramatic tensions within the film are all metaphors for the larger problems in Polish history. The relationship between Franek and Jozek is about brotherhood and mutual obligation—precisely what was at issue with the fate of the Jews during the Second World War. Franek is mystified by Jozek’s desire to save the grave stones of Jews who died a century ago and “are not our people”—while Jozek rejects Franek as a member of the family. Similarly, Jozek, by reconstituting a Jewish cemetery, is treated as an outsider by the village community, which echoes the marginalization of the Jews.
For all the accusations by some Polish media and politicians that the film is anti-Polish, both brothers are almost stereotypical Polish heroes. They obstinately confront superior odds to do what they believe to be right—which brings to mind the Polish pilots during the Battle of Britain and the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The film contains no sophisticated discussions or weighing of options. Franek and Jozek turn out to be, in different ways, men of principle. The directness of the film, exemplified by Ireneusz Czop and Maciej Stuhr’s impressive portrayals of Franek and Jozek, has displeased some critics. The New York Times described “Aftermath” as “lurid.”
Yet it is the simplicity of the film that is its greatest strength and that makes it such an intelligent exploration of the issues. “Aftermath” is gripping because it uses the well-worn suspense genre to expose the protagonists’ ignorance about their village and its history. Most audiences have a rough understanding of what Franek and Jozek are likely to discover. We know, but they are sincerely ignorant. Unlike the middle class characters in Michael Verhoeven’s “The Nasty Girl” (1990), who cover up the Nazi past of their German town, almost all of the farmers in Franek and Jozek’s village know nothing of the past. Again, the film is a metaphor for the historical cluelessness of so many Europeans when it comes to the Holocaust in their countries. As one elderly woman disingenuously tells Franek, the Germans came and the Jews were gone—the central myth of Holocaust history.
As the plot accelerates, the characters discover that the destruction of the Jews in this anonymous Polish village was not so simple. The villagers were not as detached from events as the post-war generations believed. Franek and Jozek turn out to be different men to those portrayed in the opening scenes. Franek is not the cynical, mildly anti-Semitic expatriate and Jozek not the simple apparently conscience-stricken farmer who believes Jews, as human beings, deserve to have their graves treated with respect.
Although inspired by Jan Gross’ pioneering historical work “Neighbors” (2000), which examined a pogrom of Jews in Jedwabne in eastern Poland in July 1941, “Aftermath” is about no particular Polish village. Indeed, the village in “Aftermath” is never named, because the issues raised in “Aftermath” could be set in dozens of different villages or towns in Poland or other European countries. Released in the U.S. as “Aftermath,” the original Polish title “Pokłosie” also translates as “Consequences.” The Jews are gone, but the consequences of their murder remain, and by accepting that there were consequences, “Aftermath” rejects one of the most enduring taboos of Polish and European history.