Death doesn’t always put things in perspective, at least not when art is involved. Were it not the last project by one of the 20th century’s great filmmakers, Powidoki, (Afterimage) might have made a respectful turn on the international film circuit before fading into genteel obscurity. With the passing of Andrzej Wajda last year this otherwise modest film is destined for closer scrutiny, if only to serve as a window into its director’s final preoccupations.
Powidoki is Wajda’s hommage to Władysław Strzemiński, an avant-garde painter of some renown in Poland with the misfortune to have lived, as per the Chinese curse, in interesting times. A war veteran with two missing limbs, he is nevertheless a successful figure in the art world and a popular lecturer at a Lodz art school. As the film opens, in a late 40’s Poland made paranoid by Stalinism, he seems to take for granted that his refusal to abandon formal concerns and embrace the social realism pushed by communist zealots will be understood and accommodated.
Over the course of the following hour and a half Wajda will punish his naïveté relentlessly. Unwilling to recant, Strzemiński is stripped of his position, his paintings and writing removed from view, his students hounded by the police. Forbidden to work as an artist, he tries his luck in a propaganda workshop only to be found and fired again, denied paints and, finally and most cruelly, food rations. As a sympathetic functionary he approaches for help wryly observes, ‘In a communist society those who do not work, do not eat’. In the end, Strzemiński doesn’t.
If all this sounds grim and worthy, melodramatic even, that’s not far off the mark. At times Powidoki feels positively Biblical in its suffering. This is no doubt intentional, and perhaps also personal. Like Strzemiński, Wajda studied painting as a young man. He was a film student at the time the action takes place, and would have experienced the same pressures and compromises as his protagonist. It’s tempting to read the story as an apologia, a reckoning with legacy the filmmaker likely knew would be his last. (Even the title seems to point toward the beyond.) With Poland’s recent descent into right-wing nationalism and censorship, the allegory may also extend to the present, adding special urgency.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the urgency, the effort often falls short. As with many a story about the mystical and saintly, it lacks a human touch. This is not due to the dearth of talent on board. The crème of Polish filmmaking is represented: Pawel Edelman on camera, Andrzej Panufnik’s score, and veteran Bogusław Linda as Strzemiński. Linda is particularly good, filling the screen with his intense eyes and giving Strzemiński’s (all too frequent) proclamations nuance. The rest of the cast hover around him adoringly and more or less interchangeably. Despite great supporting talent only Bronisława Zamachowska as Strzemiński’s precocious daughter, Nika, registers as an individual. And she is interesting precisely because of her ambivalence about her father, who, apart from the occasional chat over tea, seems indifferent to her presence. For Strzemiński as envisioned by Wajda is that hoariest of clichés, the self-absorbed artist.
In real life Nika was also the daughter of Katarzyna Kobro, Strzemiński’s estranged wife and a well-regarded artist in her own right. She is conspicuously absent here, which is a pity. Their relationship was turbulent enough for a film of its own – and considering that Strzemiński is rumoured to have spied on Kobro, such a film may have resonated more widely, in the manner of The Lives of Others.
Alas. Powidoki is more interested in rhetoric than in life, and what it wants to talk about is art. Or rather, Art. Though little art actually appears in the film, the communists, the students, Strzemiński, all weigh in on the topic – and it is heavy going. In the second half, as Strzemiński’s fortunes decline, the drama returns like a demon let out of the attic, and in this narrow sense, as a portrait of a man brought low by a relentless, if not quite faceless, bureaucracy, Powidoki is brutally effective. Yet it’s a curiously abstract sort of portrait: a story from which the intimate has been almost entirely excised.
There is pleasure to be found, as there always is, in Wajda’s extraordinary eye and his sensitivity to individual moments. But as with 2007’s Katyń – another well-meaning but flawed effort – the script by Andrzej Mularczyk lets him down. Wajda’s one great late period film, Tatarak, avoided this problem because it was, at least in part, an adaptation. Powidoki meanwhile suffers from an unexpected irony: a story about escaping artistic dictates that doesn’t shy from dictating; a critique of social realism that can’t throw off its dreary shackles.
Afterimage was screened as part of KINOTEKA, the 15th Polish Film Festival in London, running from 17 March till 5 April 2017.