Confronting the past

A new film highlights uncomfortable truths about Poland’s relations with its Jews.

Confroting the Past (photo credit: MENEMSHA FILMS)
Confroting the Past
(photo credit: MENEMSHA FILMS)
Polish producer  Dariusz Jabłoński compares the 2012 release in his country of his feature film, “Pokłosie” (“Aftermath”), to drilling for gas.
The film, a gothic thriller written and directed by Wladysław Pasikowski, released in the US in November, tells the story of two brothers who discover in the early 2000s that neighbors in their rural village had been involved in massacring approximately 100 of their Jewish neighbors during World War II. Worse yet, the brothers learn that their own parents were leaders of the assault, and that they, like the others in the village, stole the murdered Jews’ land.
Although there is no explicit mention of it in the film, it is widely believed that the plot is based on the July 1941 beating to death and burning alive of almost all the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne, Poland, a village located some 130 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. The pogrom was long blamed on the occupying Germans, until the publication in 2001 of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” a book by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross. Gross provided evidence that Jedwabne’s several hundred Jewish residents were, in fact, murdered by their Christian Polish neighbors, and not by the Nazis.
“You dig into the ground looking for gas, you go through layers, and the gas eruption brings everything – both positive and negative – to the surface,” Jabłoński tells The Jerusalem Report.
“What happened with ‘Aftermath’ is that the explosion was bigger than we thought.”
Indeed, with the release of the film, the filmmakers were engulfed in controversy. Polish nationalists accused them of producing anti-Polish propaganda and distorting a sensitive aspect of Polish history; lead actor Maciej Stuhr received death threats; and some local cinemas banned the film.
On the other hand, a number of prominent individuals publicly praised the Polish-Dutch- Slovak-Russian production. Polish Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski reportedly said, “I admire the courage in taking up such a difficult theme and analyzing, in cinematic form, a dramatic episode in Poland’s history.” And veteran Polish director Andrzej Wajda was quoted as saying, “I am very happy that such a film was made in Poland.”
In addition, “Aftermath” won the Journalists’ Prize and special jury recognition at the 2012 Gdynia Film Festival, Poland’s most important movie industry event.
However, the fact that the film provoked such a virulently negative and defensive reaction among some sectors of Polish society points to the country’s ongoing process of facing and dealing with its wartime past.
Stuhr plays Józef Kalina, a poor farmer living in a small village in central Poland. Both of Kalina’s parents are dead, and his wife and children have left him. His brother, Franciszek (played by Ireneusz Czop), who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and cut all ties with Poland, returns home to find out what prompted Józef’s family to leave him and show up without explanation in the United States.
Franciszek discovers that Józef has been ostracized from the community because of his odd behavior.
He’s been digging up Jewish gravestones that have been used as paving stones and planting them upright in a makeshift graveyard he’s setup in one of his fields. Józef has even taught himself Hebrew so he can read the names on the stones.
Before long, Franciszek, who makes offhand anti-Semitic remarks at first, joins forces with his brother in saving the Jewish gravestones.
One thing leads to another, and with tense, thriller-style drama, the brothers uncover, step by step, the sinister secret that their neighbors are hiding. Despite his initial skepticism, Franciszek becomes defiant in the face of ominous threats from the locals.
In the end, once Józef and Franciszek have discovered the truth about what happened in their town, they differ about what to do with the information. “The split between the brothers at the end of the film ended up predicting the split reaction it would get in Polish society,” Jabłoński, 52, notes.
Although the producer was surprised by the size of the “explosion” the film met with its Polish release, he knew that the project had the potential to be provocative. “We have to remember that during the Communist time, nothing was discussed,” he says. “We were taught that there were 6,000,000 Polish victims of the Holocaust. It was only after 1989 that we learned that most of the victims were Jews.”
“Freedom, and the polyphony of voices, allowed the past to be presented in its various interpretations. The opening of the borders allowed Holocaust survivors and their descendants to visit Poland. They became visible, and their voices became heard, confronting Polish ones,” Kamila Dabrowska, an educator at the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, explains to The Report. “The domination of one national narrative was broken, and other counter-memories were included in the public discourse.”
Stuhr, in his late 30s, remembers what it was like to learn about Jedwabne for the first time.
“That news certainly came as a shock,” he recalls to The Report. “We used to think that throughout the ages, Poland had always played a heroic part, suffering at the hands of the Germans and the Russians. So the news about Jedwabne was very disturbing. Most of us felt really, really bad about it.”
According to Jabłoński, Pasikowski wrote the film as a protest against the version of history he had been taught while growing up.
Jabłoński knew it would be a difficult film to get made, but he took it on knowing the wide reach of feature movies. It would be a double-edged sword: The popular entertainment format would gain attention for the subject matter, but, at the same time, the film would draw even more criticism than a scholarly work.
“It’s different to have heard about something than to confront uncomfortable truths with the emotionality of a film,” Jabłoński suggests.
Stuhr says he took on the role of Józef because he thought it was “my duty, as an artist and a citizen.” Audiences, used to seeing him in light, comedy fare, were surprised to see him in “Aftermath.” Yet, it’s one thing to be surprised and another altogether to “publicly lynch him,” as many in the media did, according to Jabłoński.
“For the first time in my life, I had to play a role even after the movie had been released,” the actor shares. “It was not an easy time, because some people were furious at me for being in the movie and addressing that shameful side of our history.
“I knew the movie would provoke discussion in Poland, but I never imagined it would be so vast and turbulent. All the criticism, outrage, and sometimes hate, stirred up an even bigger wave of support and approval for me personally, but also for acknowledging that reprehensible, painful part of history.”
Despite the controversy, Stanislaw Krajewski, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw and a leader in the Polish Jewish community, insists that Poland is more advanced than other Eastern and Central European countries in telling and struggling with its WWII story. He finds the film’s portrayal of the villagers as uniformly evil too simplistic, but believes that overall “Aftermath” reflects Poland’s genuine confrontation of its past.
Dabrowska praises the filmmakers for setting the story of the Kalina brothers in the immediate past, rather than in wartime Poland.
First, it makes it clear that the film’s intention is to provoke discussion about history and memory among contemporary Poles, rather than to accurately document wartime crimes. Second, it reflects actual events that have happened in Poland in the last several years.
Matzeivot are being brought to desolate Jewish cemeteries,” she says, using the Hebrew word for gravestones. “And local activists from post-war generations are rediscovering the past, and are not avoiding confrontation with the traumatic events,” she adds, making an analogy to Stuhr’s Józef character.
Małgorzata Pakier, a Polish academic specializing in Holocaust films and collective memory, worries about Holocaust fatigue among moviegoers. “I appreciate the fact that [“Aftermath”] did not tell about the past, but about how Poles deal with the past today,” she contends in speaking to The Report.
She warns, however, that it is precisely this contemporary focus that is leading to all the criticism. What people need to understand, she says, is that the controversy is not about history, but rather about the shaping of memory and Poland’s image in today’s world.
“Everybody will agree with the thesis that some Poles were szmalcowniki [betrayers of Jews], some Poles did pogroms,” she contends.
“But because ‘some’ is not specified, the question about proportions remains: Which subjects, which attitudes of Poles during World War II should you decide to show in a film? “Some Poles believe too may movies and publications have recently shown Poland from the negative side only,” she adds.
The fact that a segment of Polish society thinks in this way is no deterrent to Jabłoński.
In addition to playing in the US, “Aftermath” will also soon be widely broadcast on Polish television. “This is just the beginning of the discussion and work of this film,” he says