‘Aftermath,’ a Polish film that began a limited run in New York last week and will be making its way to Los Angeles, tells the story of two Polish brothers coming to terms with their village’s role in the Holocaust.
The film grapples with the issue from the Polish point of view, an angle that wasn’t fully embraced in the country upon the film’s local release in 2012.
Before World War II, pogroms in Russia had brought many Jews to Poland, but the population of three million was decimated by the Nazis, in many cases with Polish complicity. What traces were left of the community could only be found by Poles in the haunted ruins of Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto.
‘Aftermath’ elicited a harsh response from many Polish nationalists and right-wingers, who accused it of being “anti-Polish” propaganda and an attempt to rewrite history. Some local cinemas even banned the film and actor Maciej Stuhr, in a disturbing case of life imitating art, was, like the brothers in the film, on the receiving end of death threats and accusations of being Jewish.
Dariusz Jabłoński, the film’s producer, told The Algemeiner that the struggle to create the controversial movie took seven years, and the financial backing from investors in four countries.
“It was a very good script. When I was reading it I was attracted by its power and its unusual mix of being a thriller that had an important message,” Jabłoński told The Algemeiner in an interview.
“As a producer, if you come across a script like this you feel a responsibility. No matter how difficult it was I felt I was called to do it.”
Jabłoński’s interest in Poland’s Jewish communities began while a film student in Łódź during the 1980s, but wasn’t truly ignited until historian Jan T Gross’s book “Neighbors”—among other scholarly works published during that period— was published in 2001.
“We were all taught during Communist times that Poles were the main victims of the war, that six million Poles were murdered, and only after the transition [from communism to democracy] did we learn that half of them were of the Jewish religion,” he said. “Communism didn’t allow us to have many discussions about this Polish-Jewish relationship. We didn’t know much about Jews at all. Today there are many people who find their Jewish roots, because it was not normal to have this discussion before 1989.”
“In 2001 when Neighbors was published we learned that, yes, we were victims, but some of us were perpetrators–and it was a deep shock.”
The book recounted the covered-up slaughter in Jedwabne, a once half-Jewish village in northeastern Poland where hundreds of Jews, including children, were murdered in a savage pogrom in 1941. It sparked a controversy in the country, but one limited by the reach of the medium by which it was disseminated.
“They were published, they were known, but they were historical books that reached a limited audience,” Jabłoński said. “So that’s why I put this film on my table, because I know that a feature film, especially one made by a popular director such as [Aftermath's director Władysław] Pasikowski will reach a wide audience. It is pop culture. It is for a wide audience, for a younger audience, which is crucial.”
The DVD has sold more than 100,000 copies “an enormous amount in a country where 5,000 is considered very good,” Jabłoński said. The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Neil Friedman’s Menemsha Films, which had a record five Academy Award nominations in five years from the foreign films it represents.
‘Aftermath’ benefits from its slow-boil pace, the tension bubbling up until, in a shocking finale–it boils over. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman, from The Pianist, created a saturated atmosphere , but Jabłoński says that much of the film’s force comes from the fact that Jews have a limited presence in the film.
“We chose to not have even one note of Jewish music. We thought it was crucial that the film be for Poles, about Poles,” Jabłoński said.
Yet Jabłoński says he is not satisfied with the level of debate he’s seen on the internet and in other forums where the controversy surrounding the film has maintained an afterlife.
“I hoped for more because I felt that much of the criticism was very brutal or vulgar. So I was disappointed that we didn’t discuss beyond this. Much of the discussion said that the film was a lie or false, that it wasn’t any good artistically, but I was hoping that the discussion would go beyond that. [Jedwabne] was not the only pogrom. We know that there were at least 30 villages or small towns where those things happened.”
“There were many heroes, many Poles executed for trying to fight the Nazis, for trying to save Jews. But in order to be really proud of those people we must also recognize the bad, that we had the largest number of Jews murdered of any country,” he says.
“In my opinion, if you start a discussion with revealing a truth that is very uncomfortable, then you have convinced people of your clear intentions, and secondly you have a moral right to ask others: what have you done?”
‘Aftermath’ is now playing in New York at Lincoln Plaza, and opens in Los Angeles Nov 15 at the Royal & Town Center.