Acclaimed Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda’s final film Afterimage (Powidoki, 2016 -- Wajda died last October at the age of 90) captures the struggles faced by Polish avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952) – marvelously played by Polish star Boguslaw Linda – during the last years of his life. Born in Minsk, graduated in St. Petersburg, Strzeminiski lost a leg and arm in WWI. He later attended state workshops in Moscow and got associated with great avant-garde artists like Chagall and Malevich. During the early 1920s he moved to Warsaw and developed his theory of Unism. Post World War II, he became an instructor at Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz (a city in Central Poland). Adored by students and faculties, Strzeminiski evolved into a fine theoretician and art historian. He also developed the ‘Neoplastic room’ in 1946, a unique exhibition space for showcasing the collection of avant-garde arts, built inside Lodz’ Museum Sztuki. However, the postwar Stalinist ideologies soon snuffed out the space for abstract arts. While many artists succumbed to the Party’s populist demands, Strzeminiski refused to compromise his artistic standards or views. For nearly two decades, director Wajda pondered over making this biopic. Initially, Wajda wanted to focus on the troubled relationship between Strzeminiski and his wife/famous Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. Instead, he used a classical narrative structure to make a quietly brooding drama on the isolated yet defiant last days of Strzeminiski’s life.
Andrzej Wajda is one of the few directors who can employ allegory as a powerful tool, which is pretty evident in an earlier scene in Afterimage when Strzeminiski sits down to paint in his flat. A huge red banner bearing the visage of grim-faced Stalin is hoisted over the apartment building, coloring the walls and the empty canvas in bright red. Unable to paint, Strzeminski uses one of his crutches to tear a potion of the fabric to let in some light, which makes the lawmen to barge in and carry him to police headquarters. The giant red banner becomes a symbol for the loss of individuality (or a symbol of oppression). The film opens in 1948 and chronicles the mandate imposed by Cultural Ministry to only uphold arts related to ‘Socialist realism’. As a bureaucrat says, “in these times, we have only one choice”. Art that lacks strict ideology is considered to be an art hostile to socialist ideologies. The bald-headed despot minister doesn’t have the time or mind to appreciate abstract arts or champion individualism. Strezminiski openly denounces minister’s views that ‘art should have a clear political message’.
Strezminiski refusal to work within bureaucratic ranks strips him of his position at the university. He loses his gallery at the museum, and even dismissed from the artists association. Unable to find job anywhere within the system, Strzeminiski reels in poverty and faces humiliation everywhere he turns. He finds solace in the visits of his loyal students (among the students young Hania is infatuated with Strzeminiski), who are helping him to finish the radical work ‘Theory of Vision’. Apart from the students, Strzeminiski is cared by his smart, tough teenage daughter Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska). But his situation doesn’t get any better. He is reduced to painting large banners of Stalin to survive, and in turn for the worse, Strzeminiski is even denied the right to purchase paints. Furthermore, the onset of tuberculosis hacks away the little physical strength left within him.
Afterimage may not be one of the greatest works in Wajda’s extensive body of work. Nevertheless, it is a poignant study of a quietly rebellious artist trying to preserve his artistic integrity, in the face of oppressive doctrines. The script developed by Andrzej Mularczyk (based on Wajda’s idea) is totally devoid of hagiography notions. It was good decision to only refer to Strzeminiski’s difficult relationship with his ex-wife or his former acclaimed position rather than explain everything in detail. With his minimalist directorial approach, Wajda doesn’t shies away from depicting the harshness of Strzeminski’s physical and existential isolation. He doesn’t allow the artist to deliver loud proclamations or express the injustices done to him. Wajda even audaciously captures Strzeminiski’s graceless moments: for eg, the moment when the hungry artist licks the few drops of soup in empty plate, or showcasing his plight of drawing very large Stalin banners which earlier set off all the modes of oppression. Strzeminiski didn’t denunciate his choice of artistic expression to gain food-stamps and steady job. But at the same time, he wasn’t too prideful to deny all the essentials to survive. Director Wajda’s intention isn’t to capture the avant-garde artist’s glory. By focusing on the isolation and disintegration of the true artist, Wajda explores the ceding position of alleged intellectuals in the rise of populism or extreme nationalism. It is also interesting to note how totalitarian governments sought out arts with propagandist purposes to exploit citizen’s goodwill.
The movie title represents the shapes that linger in our eyes after it has been exposed to an image. Wajda’s recollection of Strzeminiski’s final days seems to be well-crafted afterimage of the old Poland (governed by brutal and foolish authorities). Although the systematic annihilation of Strzeminiski’s art and individualism looks relentlessly bleak, Wajda does find some hope, if not positive signs, in the young characters. The character of Strzeminski’s emancipated daughter Nika is wonderfully performed and well-written. Her sense of self survives despite the invasive doctrines. The quiet desperation as well as unbridled love between the father and daughter is also portrayed in a nuanced manner. Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance, Psy, Man of Iron, etc) incredible acting style and physiognomy impeccably conveys depths of the artist’s anguish. He avoids sentimentality and didacticism to unwaveringly play out Strzeminiski’s misfortunes. Linda even elevates the narrative above its slightly monotonous tone (particularly in the later half).
Afterimage (98 minutes) is a quiet, non-sentimental reflection on a famous Polish avant-garde artist’s struggles against Stalinist dogmas. The story of Wladyslaw Strzeminski is the perfect farewell subject matter for veteran film-maker Andrzej Wajda, whose art is often marked by individuals’ bold resistance against cruel establishment.