Inspired by Jan Gross’ book “Neighbors,” about the 1941 massacre of a Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” retools the material into a fast-paced “backwater burg with a dark secret” quasi-horror film, complete with spooky lighting, ominous music, unexplained phenomena and hostile townfolk. The idea of framing Holocaust atrocities in contemporary genre terms, although intriguing, is not without its perils, and the secret, when revealed, looms too large to fit within the plot’s parameters, creating strange disconnects between form and content. Having unleashed a firestorm of controversy in Poland, “Aftermath” will be received Stateside as simply another fictionalized Holocaust revisitation.
Elsewhere around the globe, the film’s Polish reception — with its unmistakable tinge of right-wing anti-Semitism in a country without Jews (though left-wing intellectuals have strongly rallied to the film’s defense, of course) — has understandably outstripped any interest in the movie itself. Yet this contemporary reaction is mirrored within the 2000-set film, since it concerns two Polish brothers encountering virulent anti-Semitism when they unearth old Jewish headstones used to pave roads and reassemble them as a de facto cemetery in their wheat field. (Indeed, the film’s townspeople issue death threats and call the gentile brothers “Jews,” in much the same manner that gentile lead thesp Maciej Stuhr, son of famed Polish actor Jerzy, was labeled a Jew and threatened upon “Aftermath’s” release).
Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) returns to the ancestral family farm after 20 years in Chicago. The wife and children of his brother, Jozef (Stuhr), have unexpectedly descended upon him in America, and one gets the feeling that Franciszek is motivated less by concern about Jozef than by a desire to get rid of his uninvited in-laws.
Upon his arrival, Franciszek is greeted by widespread hostility and a rock thrown through the farmhouse window, but Jozef, resentful that his older brother deserted the family years earlier, refuses to explain. Finally shown the makeshift Jewish cemetery, Franciszek, thinking his brother crazy but struggling with guilt over his absence at their parents’ funerals, nevertheless helps round up Hebrew-inscribed tombstones (Jozef having learned enough Hebrew to read the epitaphs).
Threats escalate into beatings and near-hit-and-runs, tensions building as Franciszek investigates land deeds and begins to suspect the truth about the disappearance of the Jews and his family’s own complicity in the unfolding history. Amid thunderstorms, fires, mob rumblings and things going bump in the night, the brothers persist in their quixotic task, Jozef not comprehending why he’s doing it, and Franciszek stubbornly growing more determined as resistance mounts.
Polish films about the country’s involvement in the Holocaust are nothing new, but the absence of any heroic Polish gentile figure to counterbalance the forces of evil — combined with the absence of sympathetic characters altogether (the brothers are merely heroes by default) — were interpreted by Poles as unpatriotic slurs. Even the likable, tolerant old rector (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) is superseded by a younger, anti-Semitic priest (Andrej Mastalerz). Franciszek himself remains a fount of prefab anti-Semitic remarks (though he subscribes to stereotypes more of the modern “Jews run the world” variety than of the villagers’ “they killed our Savior” cant).
The action mounts to a near-hysterical pitch with occult occurrences (the brothers’ gruesome unearthing of old bones intercut with the kindly priest’s sudden illness) and a denouement straight out of the Middle Ages. But the more the action hews to a Hammer horror template, the less congruent it feels with historical revelation.
Writer-director Pasikowski, co-scenarist of Andrej Wadja’s “Katyn” and helmer of several successful thrillers, has a foot in both the arthouse and commercial camps. Pawel Edelman, lenser of Polanski’s “The Pianist,” navigates the woodlands in atmospheric fashion; Jan Duszynski’s score cannily ratchets up the tension while Jaroslaw Kaminski’s kinetic cutting keeps action flowing briskly.