Władysław Pasikowski has made a career out of tough-minded, macho narratives. In his latest, Aftermath, he takes a real-life story of a pogrom that took place in the Polish village of Jedwabne in 1941 and turns it into a briskly paced psychological thriller. The original story, written by historian Jan T. Gross, stirred strong emotions when it came out, forcing Poles to confront their country’s long history of anti-Semitism; Pasikowski’s film doesn’t jump directly to the past, but instead deals with the crime’s present-day reverberations.
At the story’s center are two brothers, Franek (Ireneusz Czop) and Jozek (Maciej Stuhr), who reunite after 20 years when Franek comes to visit from America. Franek quickly realizes that Jozek lives on their family farm in an atmosphere of constant physical threats: his wife has left him out of fear, unknown perpetrators throw a rock smashing his window, and he’s confronted and beaten up at a bar. When pressed, Jozek confesses that the villagers have turned against him because he’s begun to rebuild an old Jewish cemetery, collecting old gravestones that had been stripped from Jewish graves and used for things like paving local roads.
In its nightmarish aura, Pasikowski’s film shares more with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby than with Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, or Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Where historical films have striven to present a more weighted account of World War II, showing that even those who follow their own economic interests may be swayed by pity to carry out heroic acts, Aftermath revels in a vision of man as a self-interested, unrepentant beast. He portrays the villagers as a murderous mob, focusing on action rather than on nuanced character development, and summons visions as if out of a horror film, such as scenes in which the woods appear to be haunted and savage acts are perpetrated against animals and humans. With the village’s inhabitants acting like possessed zombies, the film isn’t so much about the moral atrophy of people who refuse to come to terms with their past as it is about cosmic karma passed from fathers to sons like an ancient curse.
The film suffers from clunky exposition, as the village’s past is related through witnesses in heavy-handed confrontations, though it does offer some startling chills, such as when, in one scene, after Jozek and Frank spend the night digging in the mud, an old woman who suggests a Shakespearean witch appears on the road, and addresses the pile of bones they’ve dug up. Overall, the film’s clumsiest narrative device is Jozek’s sense of guilt, which isn’t necessitated by his past, but by Pasikowski’s need to find a handy motor to unravel the conspiracy: Once Jozek provokes the neighbors, whisperings start about the two brothers’ farm having come illegally into their father’s possession. With the help of pre-war archival maps, Franek learns that all farmers’ homes in the area had once had rightful Jewish owners. This gives the brothers the idea that the Jedwabne Jews may not have been deported, as the locals claim, but might have met a much grimmer fate. Step by step, menace topped by menace, the two come closer to uncovering the murderous history of their land, and of their own family.