Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Wladyslaw Strzeminski, the reluctant hero of Afterimage, the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s last film before his death at age 90 last year, was a legendary avant-garde artist in Poland before World War II. He believed the painter’s job was to transform everyday experience into a singular aesthetic expression, an endeavor that was completely separate from politics. Although he embraced cultural community, he also saw art as a profoundly individualistic enterprise that certainly did not lend itself to the aggressive agitprop of oppressive totalitarianism. This made him a bête-noir of Poland’s post-war Soviet-dominated communist government that pressured artists to churn out traditional social realist imagery.
As depicted in the film, the state marginalizes Strzeminski (portrayed with sardonic wit and heart by Wajda mainstay Boguslaw Linda), taking away his instructorship, teaching credentials, and benefits; vandalizing his students’ exhibitions; removing his work from museums; and destroying much of his art. Most of his friends and admirers decline to help him much, and he pushes away some who try – notably, a young and enamored female painter – to save them from persecution. Strzeminski dies in Lodz in 1952, crippled from injuries he suffered as a soldier in World War I and stricken with tuberculosis, mourned by his tough-minded and more pragmatic daughter and a handful of others.
In Wajda’s masterful hands – he is always sober but never melodramatic, with a correspondingly intimate but measured visual style – Strzeminski’s story is of a noble and in some ways willful naïf. He comes to realize the system will beat him down, and though he reflexively wants to survive, he plays the hand that he believes fate has dealt him. He does not resort to self-exile, whether in the crusading manner of Pablo Neruda or in the escapist mode of Stefan Zweig. Nor does he capitulate; instead, he petulantly tears the giant red banner of Stalin that occludes the light in his studio. As desperate as Strzeminski is in his last days, he is also stoic, and therefore not abjectly pathetic. But it is Wajda himself who, 65 years after the painter’s death, secures Strzeminski’s place in history – his afterimage, as it were. He uses the art of film to tell the painter’s story and rescue his quiet defiance and idealistic convictions from futility and obscurity by rendering him, paradoxically, what Strzeminski claimed he could never be: a political artist.
Afterimage, then, is a triumphant swansong for Wajda. Over the course of his lifetime, he saw his country become a war-torn wasteland and then a repressive Soviet bloc country on the frontline of the Cold War, in which he himself often had to mute and disguise the political content of his work. While his mid-1950s War Trilogy and more recent films like Katyn (2007) confront war’s transmogrifying effects directly, other Wajda movies like the Oscar-nominated The Maids of Wilko (1979) involve the way larger civilizational forces – there, World War I – impose subtle but deep existential and psychological changes on people no matter how insular, resistant, or seemingly oblivious they may be. This does not mean, of course, that artists must be overtly political – only that they should be well aware that they operate in a world in which they are inevitably subject to political forces.