Thursday, June 1, 2017

An artist vs a crushing bureaucracy

The last film from a revered Polish director.

Afterimage is the final film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died in October of last year. In this final cinematic outing, Wajda returns to the period of Soviet oppression in Poland by focusing on the declining years of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski, a painter who lost and arm and a leg during World War I, continued to work and teach until the government made his life impossible.

Strzeminski supported socialist revolution, but eventually found himself at odds with apparatchiks in the Polish bureaucracy. Influenced by Moscow, Polish Communists insisted that art adhere to the principals of Soviet Realism. Strzeminski was too much of an individualist to follow any such propagandistic model.

We meet Strzeminski, played by Boguslaw Linda, at a time when he is estranged from his wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. He receives help from his 12-year-old daughter (Bronislawa Zamachowska), a girl who doesn't entirely know what to make of a father who barely looks up from his work when she arrives at his apartment with food.

For his part, Strzeminski believes that every artist must express and defend a unique vision. We don't see much of Strzeminski's vibrantly colored work, but Linda's performance fully captures Strzeminski's devotion to art and to his students while also chronicling the increasing desperation faced by an artist who is having the life choked out of him.

At one point, an art supply store refuses to sell Strzeminski paint because he lacks the proper, government-approved credential. He's forced into a series of demeaning jobs, including painting oversized posters of Stalin. If all that weren't enough torment, Strezeminski contracts a fatal case of tuberculosis.

American audiences may not know much about Strzeminski's art, but Wajda seems less interested in celebrating the artist's work than in focusing on the torments that were inflicted on artists who refused to allow their work to become a tool of the state.

Strzeminski is offered many opportunities to sell-out and make his life easier. But even when he's close to starvation, he won't submit.

That's the film in a nutshell, and it underscores Wajda's lifelong commitment to showing what it means to go against party lines. As such, Afterimage becomes a fitting capstone to a remarkable career that spanned from the 1950s into the 21st Century.*

*If you're interested in revisiting Wajda's films, you may wish to seek out Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1978), Man of Iron (1981) and Danton (1983).

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