What makes Afterimage so difficult to watch is that the audience meets the charismatic avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda) the way his students do: as a spectacular figure, one-legged and one-armed, standing on a hill in a meadow with his class, then throwing himself to the ground and rolling to the bottom to greet a newcomer. It’s the film’s sunniest and most affirmative scene — and what follows crushes it like lead.
Founder of the Higher School of Plastic Arts and Design in postwar Łódź, Strzemiński chafed under the Soviet occupation and the demands of the Culture Ministry for the propagandistic kitsch the government called “Socialist realism.” When the government hoists a big Stalin banner on the outside of his apartment building, blocking his window and the light he needs to paint, Strzemiński pokes a big hole through it and is immediately hauled off by police. Director and co-writer Andrzej Wajda’s story is a vise that inexorably tightens on the artist as he loses his job, his gallery, and the professional credentials required for artists to work. He’s cared for by students and his emancipated teen daughter, who struggles to support herself while attending school, unable to afford shoes without holes.
Ultimately, Strzemiński is denied the right even to buy paint at an art store; here, the relentlessly grim film reaches a point at which the beginning of every scene is the setup for a dreadful totalitarian punchline. He fights to live through advanced tuberculosis in order to finish his great work, The Theory of Vision. Though Wajda admires this struggle, the artist’s final pursuit never seems redemptive in the depths of Strzemiński’s isolation and misery.
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Opens May 19, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas