Artists vs. apparatchiks in Wajda’s last film “Afterimage”
Scene from "Afterimage."

Filmmaker Andrzej Wajda was to Poland what Sergei Eisenstein was to the USSR—and arguably what Carl Yastrzemski was to the Boston Red Sox. Along with Roman Polanski’s early work, Wajda’s famed 1950s World War II-era trilogy about Polish partisans battling the Nazis—A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds—put Poland on the world cinema map. He won an Honorary Oscar in 2000 and died last October at age 90 after making movies for more than 60 years.

Like “Yaz,” Afterimage hits a homerun. Poland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film to the 89th Academy Awards is a biopic about that Eastern European nation’s greatest 20th-century painter Władysław Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda), a constructivist contemporary of Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall. With this talent, Wajda found a subject through which he could express his credo as an artiste—criticism of Stalinism.

In his youth, Strzemiński had been a revolutionary, but after the political “vanguard party” took power in post-WWII Poland and became an authoritarian establishment, imposing its dictums upon the arts, Strzemiński adamantly stuck to his creative guns. His “formalism” put him on a collision course with the Stalinists’ “socialist realism,” a sometimes banal representational style intended to pictorialize party policies and ideology that wasn’t exactly socialist or realist.

Afterimage is fundamentally a film about abstract artists versus apparatchiks, as painters battle bureaucrats and the secret police. Wajda brilliantly visualizes this early in the movie: Circa 1950, as Strzemiński prepares to paint on a blank canvas, Poles outside his studio window hoist a huge banner emblazoned with Stalin’s image. This blots out the clear light entering through the windows, casting a symbolic red hue on the surface of Strzemiński’s canvas. Angered, using a crutch he tears a hole in the banner in order to literally see the light, leading to the painter’s arrest.

The heartbreaking film follows the disabled Strzemiński (who’d lost an arm and leg in World War I) as he boldly pursues his artistic vision—instead of the party line—in his studio and at the National School of Fine Arts in Łódź (Wajda attended film school at Łódź), where students pay rapt attention to every word the popular maestro utters. The Stalinists proceed to “disappear” the diffident (if not dissident) Strzemiński from the Neo-Plastic room at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and at the university. At one confrontation the minister of culture tells the professor: “You should be hit by a tram.”

Nevertheless, his pupils bravely rally to their beloved if beleaguered “Mr. Chips.” Among other things, they put themselves in harm’s way by “borrowing” a typewriter to clandestinely transcribe the book Strzemiński is dictating, “Theory of Vision.” Considering her professor to be a “prophet,” Hanna (a blonde beauty poignantly played by Zofia Wichlacz, who is smitten with the painter) risks the wrath of the secret police by typing up his ideas. Another university disciple, Roman (Tomasz Wlosok), is drummed out of the party for daring to resist condemnation of his instructor.

Strzemiński’s daughter (heartachingly played by 14-year-old Bronislawa Zamachowska) also suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune triggered by her recalcitrant father’s crusade. Nika clearly loves her father and repeatedly admonishes him for smoking too much. Her parents are separated—her mother, a renowned sculptor, is hospitalized—and the hapless schoolgirl bounces from one home to another.

As Stalinist stooges pressure those in all creative endeavors to extol the party’s virtues, the undaunted Strzemiński insists, “Art imposes its truth on reality.” The personal cost an artist pays is revealed, as hardships are heaped upon the single-minded painter, his young daughter and supporters. In this sense it’s interesting to compare Afterimage to the Hollywood version of the starving artist suffering for his art, epitomized by Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. The Post-Impressionists’ deprivations were largely due to societal indifference in the West, owing to narrow-mindedness and commercial forces driving the art market.

On the other hand, ideologically-driven party hacks were anything but indifferent to Strzemiński, whom they scorned and persecuted. But this doesn’t mean that the capitalist state always maintains a laissez faire attitude towards its artists: At the same time the real life Strzemiński was being blackballed in Stalinist Poland, the Hollywood Blacklist purged leftists (and others who refused to become informers) from working in the motion picture industry, and talents such as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo were even fined and imprisoned.

Wajda may have identified with Władysław Strzemiński as a metaphor for how authoritarianism cripples human beings, in particular creative individuals who strive to fulfill their singular aesthetic vision. Strzemiński is depicted by one of Poland’s top leading men, Boguslaw Linda, who portrayed the ultra-leftist Saint Just opposite Gérard Depardieu in Wajda’s 1983 rumination on the French Revolution, Danton, and in Wajda’s 1981 Man of Iron. His final film, Afterimage, is a brilliant distillation of Wajda’s filmmaking, capping a stellar career that spanned seven decades.

Shortly before Afterimage was released in the U.S., the documentary Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon had its West Coast premiere during the 12th annual South East European Film Festival. In nonfiction terms Andrea Simon’s film exposes similar situations vis-à-vis Stalinists and artists in Bulgaria, as the tumultuous life and work of the eponymous 94-year-old screenwriter and novelist are recounted. Like Strzemiński—and, indeed, Wajda—Angel Wagenstein had his clashes with those party paper pushers and bureaucrats who somehow knew more about art than, you know, the artists. Perhaps these films, both coming out around the same time, will lead to a reappraisal of Eastern European cinema in the West, which often overlooks the films created on the other side of the “Iron Curtain” during the Cold War. If so, Afterimage may leave moviegoers with an afterglow. The trailer can be seen here.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer who is co-presenting Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal on Fri., June 23 at 7:30 pm, at the L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles 90019 as part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month and concluding on November 7th. For info:


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.