The late Andrzej Wajda’s portrayal of Władysław Strzemiński is a production with lots of unfulfilled potential. What we could have got is an ambivalent, fractured depiction of Strzemiński. What we got instead is a lifeless story about an indomitable artist overwhelmed by the system.
One of the scenes from Afterimage shows Strzemiński during one of his lectures, saying ‘Your every decision is good. Exactly because it is yours’. It seems that Wajda decided to comply with this maxim. While creating his story about Władyslaw Strzemiński, one of the most talented Polish artists of the 20th century, he decided to focus on the story of his struggle against the communist regime, which was not keen on the rebellious artist. This focus, unfortunately, means that the surface of the artist’s turbulent personal life is barely touched.
Strzemiński, as seen by Wajda, is a lone hero who does not comply with the dominating doctrine of socialist realism. For his defiance he is marginalised and made insignificant. Wajda is scrupulous in his account of the painter’s torment. He does not forget to mention Strzemiński getting laid off from his university position, losing his right to practise his profession, and the political repressions imposed on his family. Subsequent scenes are like the stations of the cross. However, detailed as it is, Strzemiński’s Calvary is not as moving as it should be.
It is not touching because it leaves out the private life of the artist. Afterimage does not tell the story about his difficult relationship with another brilliant artist, sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. That is an incredible shame, as their autobiographies suggest that it could have been the basis for a grand drama. It could, also, have been another hint to uncovering who Strzemiński really was, behind the ambiguous, fascinating shroud.
Wajda is not at all interested in this aspect, he barely touches upon it in a few uncertain scenes. Kobro is a kind of ghostly presence, a distant, painful memory, or maybe a bad conscience. Moreover, Strzemiński’s unobvious relations with his daughter (played, underwhelmingly, by Bronisława Zamachowska) are not explored in greater depth. The love story between the old, handicapped artist and his beautiful, young student (played by Zofia Wichłacz) becomes only an anecdote.
On the other hand, what is most interesting for Andrzej Wajda and the screenwriter, Andrzej Mularczyk, is a tale of art and its role in politics. Strzemiński is portrayed as both cast out and adamant in his ideas. Constantly repressed by the communists, he doesn’t falter, nor does he abandon his ideas. For him, art is about crossing boundaries and finding new means of expression.
The last movie by Wajda fits perfectly into a recent discussion concerning the role of the artist in Polish culture. Should artists cultivate national pride, or should they seek and express their own own reflections, no matter how cumbersome and defiant they are? The director himself, just like the hero of Afterimage, seems to opt for freedom.
If this marble statue of Strzemiński seems to come to life, it is only thanks to an incredible performance by Bogusław Linda, who is at the top of his game. Focused, conscious of even the smallest gesture, he creates a tragic, hopeless figure, at the same time marked by a kind of grandeur. His performance makes Strzemiński’s academic tirades feel impactful, and it’s his acting that lets us relate to the oppressed but internally free artist.
One of the first scenes in Afterimage shows Strzemiński painting in his flat. On the roof, workers are hanging a giant portrait of Joseph Stalin. Suddenly, a red sheet falls down the roof and covers the windows of the house, and the whole flat is filled with red light, a symbol of communist interference in the artist’s personal, intimate space.
Afterimage is full of brilliant scenes like that, a sign of the work of a real master. The problem is that they do not create a comprehensible whole. That is because Wajda, the director, is constantly interrupted by Wajda, the custodian, who is interested in commemorating Strzemiński, rather than fully utilising the dramatic potential of his biography. Although Afterimage seduces viewers with a brilliant performance by Bogusław Linda, its potential remains unfulfilled.
- Afterimage (Polish: Powidoki), Directed by: Andrzej Wajda. Screenplay by: Andrzej Mularczyk. Director of photography: Paweł Edelman. Film editing: Grazyna Gradon. Music by: Andrzej Panufnik. Starring: Bogusław Linda, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Bronisława Zamachowska, Zofia Wichłacz, Szymon Bobrowski, Krzysztof Pieczyński, Irena Melcer. In cinemas January 13.