“We won’t make the world a better place, but at least we won’t make it worse,” says Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) to his younger brother, Józef (Maciej Stuhr), near the climax of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath. That stark cynicism permeates Pasikowski’s unsettling historical drama. The story is simple — two siblings in a Polish village gradually learn of their kin and neighbors’ barbaric Jew-baiting during the Holocaust — but what gives Aftermath its peculiar strain of portent is Pasikowski’s consistent suggestion of the futility of bold, desperate attempts to undo a wrong.
Not only are there not heroes in Aftermath, there’s not even a cut-and-dry protagonist. The director has lifted the material from both Jan T. Gross’s 2000 book Neighbors, about the vicious 1941 pogroms in the Jewish-populated Jedwabne, and the 1996 documentary Shtetl, in which a Polish historian stumbles upon Jewish gravestones used to pave town roads. Pasikowski has said the near-decade-long effort to make Aftermath, impeded by Polish nationalists, stemmed from his own shame at these events. But the film is far from a polemic. Its anger is cagey and cryptic, and, at first, its voice of reason seems to belong to a bitter anti-Semite.
Franciszek returns from Chicago to his native Poland in 2001, having left 21 years ago in disgust with Poland’s implementation of martial law. America wasn’t much better for him, though, and he’s bitter about his lowly asbestos work for the greedy “Yids” that “run” Chicago. He’s determined to find out why Józef’s wife and children have left for America — and why hooligans are beating Józef up and chucking rocks through his window. But Józef, stinging from Franciszek’s abandonment — he refused to come back for both parents’ funerals, and the family farm has suffered in his absence — isn’t providing any answers.
What has stoked everyone’s ire is Józef’s reclamation of Jewish tombstones used as building material after World War II — in roads, farm structures, the local church well. He’s bent on respecting the dead, and, unlike the fuming townsfolk — and his own brother — he sees the Jews as human.
In a more mundane film, Józef would be presented as the tragic noble figure, the one soul in a sea of evil who can see right from wrong. But Pasikowski doesn’t shy from making Józef look somewhat ridiculous and misguided. Józef never explains his actions in terms more persuasive than “I kind of figured it wasn’t right.” He bears little remorse for the harm his martyrdom causes to those close to him, and his obsession seems rooted more in narcissism than a sudden affinity for the Jews. As Franciszek, thoroughly unmoved by Józef’s actions, flatly puts it: “It doesn’t matter; they are dead,” and for the film’s chilling first half that alarming notion seems to be Pasikowski’s.
Aftermath becomes a more conventional thriller (complete with a booming, overwrought score) as the brothers uncover more secrets. Their own home once belonged to murdered Jews, and the Jews in their community were exterminated not by Nazis but fellow Poles. The brothers’ assailants in town aren’t portrayed with the same bracing complexity; they are one cartoonishly sputtering mob, screaming epithets, even calling the boys “Jews” themselves. There are a few cipher characters, a good priest and a bad priest. And, more problematically, Aftermath is unlikely to shock anyone outside rightwing circles in Poland — who refuse to do any finger-pointing at themselves — with the revelations that stretches of Poland still harbor a breed of violent anti-Semitism.
Aftermath is not merely a grandiose apology for Holocaust-era complicity. It taps a richer vein with its examination of why such an apology is ultimately so empty, even if it takes profound bravery to apologize. At the least, guilt over past collective wrongdoing does reveals a conscience, and here Pasikowski is essentially excoriating Poland for its lack of guilt. When Józef, at the film’s end, can’t come to terms with his family’s involvement in genocide, he stands for a nation in its most vehement state of denial.