Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage, which chronicles the final years of Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda), has been whittled down into a lean, unwavering look at the effects of artistic idealism in the face of fascist doctrine. Wajda strips away context by only alluding to aspects of Strzemiński’s life, such as an apparently hostile relationship with his ex-wife, without depicting them at length or in detail. This choice could be interpreted as incomplete or narrowly focused, but that perspective would miss the film’s thoroughly conceived emphasis on Strzemiński’s diminishing sense of self throughout postwar Stalinist Poland. What emerges, then, is a slow-burning profile of the physical suffering brought on by having no relationship to the ethos and ethics of one’s own time.
The film opens in 1948, with Strzemiński a revered abstract painter and professor, adored by his students and fellow faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz. Wajda presents Strzemiński as a beacon of singularity and reason, whose penchant for muckraking even extends to his home, where he slashes a newly hung banner of Stalinist propaganda just outside his apartment window. However, the initially contentious nature of Strzemiński’s disdain for the emerging trend of Socialist Realism, which is more or less didactic propaganda disguised as art, becomes less a matter of ideas and actions than restrictions imposed on Strzemiński by the government. If Wajda idealizes Strzemiński’s refusal to abdicate his practice of abstract art, he also implies that martyrdom as a solution to tyranny falls short of having a worthwhile impact, not least because it requires the death of the subject. As Afterimage morphs into a quieter, reflective film regarding individual sacrifice, Wajda less deifies Strzemiński than complicates any hagiographic notion that a single man can constitute a movement of political significance unto himself.
Wajda’s own political interests lie in viewing Strzemiński’s artistry as an action that necessitates money and infrastructure in order for it to have significance, something that becomes abundantly clear once his work “Neoplastic Room” is removed from the Lodz Art Museum by the government, which is censoring abstract artists who refuse to work within its ranks. Wajda depicts this series of unfortunate events as a matter-of-fact procedure of governmental decrees. The minimalist direction empties the material’s own sentimental or didactic potential by understanding oppression as the power held by signatures from grinning legislators. The loss of art, for Strzemiński, means losing institutional support. Thus, Wajda suggests the difficulty of operating outside of such institutions, which possess the power to both make and break artists.
In essence, something as conceptual as “Neoplastic Room” cannot happen without the populace’s agreement that experimentation through form is a valid mode of societal inquiry. The resistance to Strzemiński on the part of bureaucrats derives from being mystified by the artist’s work, a response that Wajda depicts in a town hall-style meeting where Strzemiński denounces a spokesman’s decree that art should have a clear political message. When no one in the room steps in to back Strzemiński’s refusal, it’s because he’s no longer enjoying the comforts of Hania (Zofia Wichlacz), an infatuated student, or any of the infrastructural support a university provides its employees. Wajda uses these contrasting spaces to show how historically sealed off they are from one another, at least in terms of conversation. When the government takes away Strzemiński’s art, strips him of his position at the university, and even makes it impossible for him to purchase art supplies at local stores, it’s Wajda’s most damning estimation of the failure of intellectual arenas to find an edifying purpose outside of its institution’s walls.
Afterimage’s final third presses Strzemiński into a corner of his own hostility toward being reduced to painting the very large Stalinist banners he initially lashed out against. When necessity comes begging and Strzemiński needs the essentials to survive, his idealism preserves little more than his pride and mindset. As Strzemiński’s body starts to waste away, Wajda allows him no moment of grace or glory; there’s neither a speech about integrity nor a scene of mass protest. By and large, as Wajda depicts it, Strzemiński becomes an island because his fight to preserve a certain artistic mode has no purchase for anyone other than a seemingly shrinking number of intellectually minded individuals in postwar Poland. As the forces of populism rise and the tide of the avant garde falls, art’s failure to find an immediate purpose for itself beyond as a cloak for the doctrine of oppressive regimes ultimately confines Strzemiński, Wajda, and, by extension, any practitioner of forward-thinking art into a cell of isolation that’s equal parts physical and existential.