Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Aftermath (orig. Pokłosie) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars)  Polityka.pl (4/6)  Liberte.pl (8/10)  RE.com (1 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
FilmWeb.pl listing*

GazetaWyborcza.pl (T. Sobolewski) review*   news coverage*
Polityka.pl (J. Wróblewski) reviewforum discussion*
RP.pl [Rzeczpospolita - Common Speech] (B. Hollender) reviewnews coverage*
Gazeta.pl  news coverage*
Liberte.pl (M. Mirowski) review*   news coverage*

Jerusalem Post (Reuters) news coverage

ChicagoTribune/Variety (R. Scheib) review
RE.com (S. Abrams) review

Aftermath (orig. Pokłosie) [2013] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*(screenplay and directed by Władysław Pasikowski [IMDb] [FW.pl]* based on the true incident recounted in the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland [2001] by Jan Tomasz Gross), which played recently here in Chicago at the Polish Film Festival in America (but with a synopsis so "spoiler-free" that I honestly didn't know what the film was about until after the festival was over ;-) is a well constructed tale that utilizes the conventions that will be recognizable to American viewers as that of American Film Noir to bring to light a very ugly secret: During Nazi occupation in at least one case, Polish peasants took advantage of the Nazi campaign of exterminating Jews to (on their own, without much prodding by the German Gestapo) wipe-out the Jews of their own community ... in order to steal their land.

[The film is playing again at the Music Box Theater here in Chicago, which also organized a Panel discussion after one of the showings which included a representative of the Polish Consulate in Chicago as well as two Professors, one of Polish Studies and another, my Order's own, Fr. John Pawlikowski, OSM of the Catholic Theological Union here in Chicago and a former member of the National Holocaust Museum Commission.  I attended the showing with the subsequent panel discussion]. 

Needless to say, the J.T. Gross' original book caused a sensation (and an official Polish Government inquiry which both by-and-large vindicated Gross' claims regarding the 1941 Polish peasant instigated pogrom in Jedwabne AND found (thankfully) the atrocity to be all-but unique in the history of Nazi occupation of Poland.  J.T. Gross' subsequent works including Złote żniwa (Golden Harvest) about how various Poles across Poland would have benefited financially from taking-over property (both land and other material wealth) after their Jewish neighbors were taken away by the Nazis first to the Ghettos and then extermination camps have caused further controversy with Gross having been accused of oversimplification and more-or-less obvious one-sidedness.

This is because while Gross was CERTAINLY RIGHT that many Poles probably benefited from the land and property left behind by their deported and subsequently largely exterminated Jewish neighbors, Poles were CERTAINLY NOT the only "beneficiaries" of such "vulture-like" behavior nor were Jews the only victims.  The recent film Sarah's Key [2011] about the rounding-up and deportation of Paris' Jews (an operation run by PARIS' OWN LOCAL (FRENCH) AUTHORITIES if under direction of the German occupiers) reminded viewers that there are plenty of homes and flats across Paris that were confiscated after the deportation of their Jewish owners and then reallocated to non-Jewish French families.  And this would have been true across the whole of Europe.

Then the situation became even more complex in Poland after the War because 1/3 of Poland today belonged to Germany prior to World War II and the eastern half of pre-WW II Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union and now belongs to Belarus and the Ukraine.  SO THERE ARE MILLIONS OF POLES WHO LIVE IN HOMES OR OTHERWISE "OWN" LAND THAT USED TO BELONG TO GERMANS, even as millions of Poles were displaced (losing their land/property) as well.  Going south to my parents' country the Czech Republic and a similar phenomenon occurred when after World War II the post-war Czechoslovak government summarily expelled the three million ethnic Germans of the Sudeten region of that country.  Again there are perhaps millions of Czechs who now live in homes and "own" land that used to belong to ethnic Germans.   An excellent Czech film ALSO using the conventions of American Film Noir applying them to the "unspeakable secret" of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from their lands was the recent and quite haunting Alois Nebel [2011].

THEN ADD THE COMMUNISTS TO THE MIX who confiscated lands and other property from "rich people" OF ALL ETHNICITIES  ACROSS ALL OF CENTRAL/EASTERN EUROPE, and redistributed them to others.  So there were a multitude of mass property thefts that occurred all across Europe and particularly Central/Eastern Europe during the middle half of the 20th century.

Then add to this list of property crimes, honestly, the confiscations of Arab lands that took place during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence (one of the biggest sticking points in the making of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace agreement is the question of the "right of return" of Palestinians to land that belonged to their families for centuries that was lost during that first Arab-Israeli War). 

Resolving these many, many layers of "property issues" would honestly require a Solomon as well as an ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF MERCY.

Hence it should not be surprising that a film like this one "would strike a nerve," and I certainly understand the fear of many Poles (expressed in some of the coverage of this film above) that a film like this would just make people across the Western world HATE POLES even as POLES HAVE BEEN SCREAMING FOR DECADES THAT THEY WERE ENORMOUS AND WILDLY UNDER-APPRECIATED VICTIMS DURING WORLD WAR II AND NOT JUST AT THE HANDS OF THE NAZIS who enslaved them, murdered a good part of their Intelligencia and even as the Nazis' War was lost leveled their capital city, Warsaw, to dust BUT ALSO OF THE SOVIETS who stole the eastern half of their country and deported millions of Poles from that part of the country East (an excellent recent film on this Soviet-era crime is the Polish language/English subtitled film Siberian Exile (orig. Syberiada Polska) [2013]) and waited patiently while the Nazis leveled Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising wiping out most of the non-Communist "Polish Home Army" for them before coming in to "liberate" the country.

Still the truth is the truth and part of that truth is Nazi-era Pogrom in Jedwabne was an atrocity not committed by the Nazis but by Polish peasants themselves.  That is then what this film is about.  And as is typical of the young everywhere, the younger generation in Poland just wants to know its past and know the truth so that it can go forward from there.  And who can not appreciate that desire?

So then how does the current film then play out?

It begins presumably around the year 2000 with 40-something year old Franek Kalina (played by Ireneusz Czop [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) arriving in Warsaw (from Chicago) for the first time over 20 years after having left Poland during the Communist era following the 1980 crackdown against Solidarity.  He's not picked-up by anybody at the airport.  Instead, he takes a taxi to the train station, and then by train, then by bus and finally by foot he arrives, at night-fall, at his family's homestead at the edge of a small provincial town somewhere in rural Poland.

Why didn't his younger brother Józef (played by Maciej Stuhr [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) pick him up at the airport, or even at the bus-stop at the edge of town?  Well, apparently he didn't even know that Franek was coming.  Why?  Because they hadn't been talking in years.  Why?  Because Franek had appeared to be so involved in his own life in the West that he didn't even return to Poland for his parents' funerals.  Note that in an early conversation between the two after Franek appeared suddenly at Józef's doorstep, Franek tried to explain that it wouldn't have been easy for him to return as they died still during the Communist Era and conceivably could have gotten himself in trouble with the then Communist authorities if he had returned.  True or not, or partly true or not, the fact was the Franek hadn't come back for his parents' funerals and hence had been written off as being basically dead by Józef (and as we find out, by the rest of the village).

Okay, so what the heck is Franek doing at his family's homestead in Poland so many years after having broken ties with his parents/brother following his departure?  Well, we're told that JOZEF'S WIFE AND KID(S) suddenly appeared at Franek's doorstep in Chicago and Franek could not get a clear answer from them why THEY were there.  All he knew was that it was something about what Józef was doing.  So Franek flew out to Poland thinking that Józef his brother had been somehow abusing his wife and kids.

Yet it soon becomes clear that something else is going on: As the two confront each other in a very awkward initial conversation -- "What the heck are you doing here Franek after all these years?  Mom and Pop have been dead for a bunch of years.  You know YOUR PARENTS, the ones whose funerals you didn't bother to come back for."  "I get that, but WHY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS did your wife and kid(s) SUDDENLY show up at my doorstep back in Chicago?" -- a brick flies through through the window of Józef's house abruptly changing the conversation: "What the heck was that?" asks Franek.  "Ask in the village," replies Józef.

So the next day, Franek does.  The villagers _all remember_ Franek as the one who left the village back in 1980 and never returned, not even for his parents' funerals.   But they do add that Józef had apparently done something that had irritated them all.  What was it?  Well, he had dug up something on the "old road by the tannery" outside of town.  What was it?  Well, it turns out that during the Nazi occupation, the Nazis had paved "the old road by the old tannery" with the gravestones of the local Jewish cemetery.  Soon after the war, the local Polish government had paved over the the gravestones with asphalt so that the stones were no longer visible.  Well, a number of years prior to Franek's return, a flood came and washed away the much of the asphalt AND Józef one of the few people still taking that road (to his family's fields) happened upon those old Jewish gravestones.  NATURALLY APPALLED by what he saw, he started to recover those old grave stones, and SINCE NONE OF THE LOCAL AUTHORITIES SEEMED TO WANT TO DO ANYTHING WITH THEM he started to put them up, upright in his field nearby.  Józef explained to Franek: "It just seemed the right thing to do.  We (as Catholics...) are supposed to honor the dead." (Remember, Franek didn't even come home for his his own parents' funerals ...).

Anyway, the town didn't take too kindly to what Józef was doing.  Those gravestones had been paved over (buried) there in the road for a long time, and the villagers didn't want to dig this all up ...

Why?  Well, that's the rest of the story and the story does follow more or less what truly happened in the village of Jedwabne: It wasn't really the Nazis who got rid of (killed) the village's Jews, it was the Poles of the village themselves.   Why?  Well, in part for their land, and yes (and this is _always_ one of the great "little evils" of dictatorship ...) to settle old scores: "So I was not good enough for you?  NOW DIE, you and your whole family..." 

In any case, what a horror that these two brothers progressively walk into!  And the horror just keeps going: "What do you mean that this house where we were both born, these fields that our family owned, were not really ours...?"

This is honestly A GREAT and VERY BRAVE movie.  It's ugly, it's horrific.  It's something that NO ONE would want to hear about one's past or one's family's past.  But it's also the truth.

And the Truth CAN set one free.  Again this is a great film and ANYONE who tries to use this film against POLES ought to remember that this story (or one similar to it) could be repeated OVER AND OVER AGAIN across Europe and EVEN NO ONE OF EUROPEAN DESCENT who lives in the Western Hemisphere today lives on land that originally belonged to his/her families.  IT WAS ALL STOLEN from the natives who originally lived here.  Every nation, every people has "skeletons" in its closet.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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1 comment:

  1. Note to Readers regarding my comments policy:

    For the sake of readers like my 81 year old dad, over the years I've allowed readers to send comments "anonymously" (because let's face it, it's the easiest way to do so and one can always attach one's name at the end of even an "anonymous" comment ;-). HOWEVER, I've also retained my right to "moderate" comments as they arrive, rejecting the more problematic ones.

    I have generally been quite lenient with regards to moderating the comments that do arrive.

    HOWEVER, I've learned that films like this one can produce some rather charged responses.

    Since there is no way for me to be certain that the comments sent to me anonymously, or not, are authentic rather than the products of any number of classes of provocateurs with any number of agendas, I've decided to post only comments that seem to me to be reasonably well thought-out and constructive (and obviously not selling anything ;-)

    Name calling, to say nothing of hate-speech, against either Poles or Jews or really anyone else will get one no where on this blog as God loves us all ;-)