30 November 2013

A powerful film about Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles

I saw the film Aftermath (2012), spoken in Polish with English subtitles. The two main characters, Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Jozek Kalina (Maciej Stuhr), were sons of a poor farmer in a small village in Poland.

Franek had immigrated to Chicago in 1980 and did not even return to his homeland when his parents died. Then suddenly, in 2000, Franek arrived back on the family farm without explanation and found the locals were not talking to brother Jozek. What terrible thing could Jozek have done? Only the wise old vicar (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) knew for sure.

Jozek's speech was full of casual anti-Semitism. Yet he had carefully reclaimed the tombstones of Jews massacred during WW2, before he was born, to give the dead a place of eternal rest. The incoherent and lonely Jozek did not know why the tombstones were being used as pavers on the road, nor did he know how the Jews had died in WW2. So he taught himself to read a little Hebrew, to familiarise himself with the names and places on the old tombstones.

As a result, Franek thought his brother was a raving lunatic. It was only as the two men struggled to rekindle their brotherhood that they uncovered a terrible secret; this secret in turn for­ced them to confront the history of their individual family and of their entire home village.

Franek is confronted by the villagers on one hand and the police on the other

The massacre in question really did occur in Jedwabne N.E Poland in July 1941. Every single Jewish Pole in the village, man woman and child, was locked into a barn and set alight by their Catholic Polish friends and neighbours. A couple of Jewish babies had been thrown out of the barn to save them from being burned to death, but the babies had been scooped up by the Catholic Polish neighbours and thrown back into the barn. By the year 2000, only the oldest citizens in village still remembered the brutal details... only they had been watching the massacre back in 1941.

I saw Aftermath in a Jewish film festival in Australia where some 90% of the audience were Jewish Poles or the children of Jewish Poles. It is a powerfully acted, morally ambivalent and brutal film. And Pawel Edelman's cinematography is stunning.

But I don’t think the film was written for Jewish Poles. Rather it was written for Catholic Poles. Just as the two brothers had to break the conspiracy of silence about the war-time massacre of the vill­age’s own citizens, so do modern Poles have to face the terrible events of 1939-45.

Together the brothers dug up and examined everything from the titles-office to bodies, and they painfully discovered that their knowledge of the war, about Nazi genocide and Jews intent on returning to reclaim their family’s lands, were lies. And exactly as the brothers progressed with their research about the past, the majority of villagers were turning against them. Violently. Firstly they were beaten to a pulp, then their farmlands were burned and not saved by the fire brigade, and finally Josek was killed.

Film reviews in modern Poland have run the same risk – the film was ridiculed and finally banned in many places. Wladyslaw Pasikowski is one of Poland’s best directors but that did not protect him from the wrath of Polish nationals who “have accused the film of being anti-Polish propaganda, as well as a distortion of a sensitive piece of Polish history”.

An elderly witness to the 1941 massacre finally tells the brothers the truth

3 million Jews Poles were alive and well in 1939. Although the Holocaust occurred largely in German-occupied Poland, most modern Poles have argued there was little collaboration with the Nazis by its Catholic citizens against its Jewish citizens. At best, Polish nationalists are saying, there was active resistance against Germany; at worst there was passive silence. Aftermath, however, is showing that complicit Catholic Poles could be just as anti-Semitic and brutal to their Jewish Polish neighbours as the Germans were.

In the end, the same question is always asked. If I was a Catholic Pole in 1941, would I have passively cooperated with the Nazis and saved my own family from execution? Or would I have tried to save my Jewish Polish neighbours and risk retribution from the Germans?




8 comments:

Andrew said...

A very grim and disturbing story but one that needed to be told. I guess people standing by, turning a blind eye and doing nothing is understandable. Who wants to go against the flow and status quo? But what the film describes is a giant step beyond that point.

Hels said...

Andrew

The great thing about the film was that the writer carefully based his words on the historical records. If an event couldn't be located by historians in the national or city archives, it wasn't included in the film.

The most difficult thing in the film was these young men (presumably born in the 1950s) had to face what their father and his contemporaries did to the other Poles they went to school with. And were neighbours of.

Mandy Southgate said...

It sounds like a really powerful film with that gritty feel European films so often possess. I must try see it.

Hels said...

Mandy

True, true. Most films on offer, especially from Hollywood, are well produced but hardly rivetting.

So Joe and I go every year to the annual film festivals that arrive in October and November - the very best films from France, Spain, Russia etc that may be difficult to watch but tell important stories.

Aftermath is such a film.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Pogroms against the Jews occurred at least since the 19th century in Poland, so the claim that there was no collaboration with the Nazis doesn't carry much weight of conviction. Well before WWII, in the early 20th century, my great-grandfather made every sacrifice to get his family out of Poland.
--Jim

Hels said...

Parnassus

I had no idea you have a Polish background :) Then you must see this film!

I agree that the Polish population at the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland (Sept 1939) knew perfectly well what was happening *nod*.

The point the film was making was that children born after the war, not eye witnesses themselves, truly have no idea what their parents did during the war. In 2000, these middle aged brothers didn't even know how their farm suddenly came into their family.

The Jerusalem Report said...

Leading actor Maciej Stuhr did receive death threats and local cinemas did ban the film. However there was wide critical praise. Aftermath won the Journalists' Prize and special jury recognition at the 2012 Gdynia Film Festival, Poland's most important movie industry event.

Hels said...

ahh yes. Sometimes critical response is as important as popular response.