By Don Simpson | November 15, 2013
Director: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Writer: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Starring: Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szaflarska, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialová, Wojciech Zielinski, Andrzej Mastalerz, Ryszard Ronczewski, Jaroslaw Gruda, Jan Jurewicz, Stanislaw Brudny, Zbigniew Kasprzyk, Robert Rogalski, Maria Garbowska
When Józef (Maciej Stuhr) returns to Poland after disappearing to the United States 20 years prior, he quickly discovers that his brother Franek (Ireneusz Czop) has become the black sheep of the quaint Polish village where they were born and raised. As it turns out, Franek has taken it upon himself to unearth hundreds of Jewish gravestones, thus dredging up a local history that the townspeople would rather keep buried. Rather than convincing his brother to stop antagonizing his neighbors, Józef becomes intrigued by the mystery and joins his brother’s cause. Józef and Franek seem to be fatefully drawn to this quest, as if a higher power has chosen them to reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of their village’s past.
It is definitely best for me to not divulge what they discover, but their findings do forever alter the history of their nation. There are a lot of Polish people who are very upset about Aftermath because of its allegations — many were also upset by the book that inspired this film, Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001). First and foremost, Aftermath is about facing your country and/or family’s history, accepting it and learning from it; so, writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski seems to be telling his native country to swallow their pride and accept the evidence.
Of course, 60 or 70 years after the events actually occurred — with few reliable witnesses to accurately recount what happened — it is impossible to know the facts. This is probably why Pasikowski opts to tell this tale as a work of fiction, rather than presenting it as truth. Pasikowski directs Aftermath as if it is a historical mystery told by way of horror film conventions, constantly alluding to the possibility of supernatural forces that may or may not exist on the periphery of the screen. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman (The Pianist, The Ghost Writer) contributes to the horror aesthetic with a gothic mise-en-scène which is made even spookier by the film’s bombastic sound design. Most admirably, Pasikowski refuses to utilize flashbacks, which would have easily broken the unique mood and tone of this film; and since Aftermath is about people in the present trying to reconcile their oblique findings with an uncertain past, any flashbacks would have erroneously cemented the meanings of those findings as facts. This ambiguity (both historical and moral) works really well for Pasikowski, so it is a shame whenever he opts to rely on expository dialogue to over-explain things.