With the death of Andrzej Wajda last December, the title of his final film assumes a necessarily haunting new resonance. Wajda was a veritable giant of Polish cinema whose interest in the political and artistic life of his native country never waned. Afterimage, an austere biopic set in postwar Łódź, depicts the final years of another great figure of the Polish visual arts — the painter Władysław Strzemiński. As one of several films in the director’s oeuvre that critiques totalitarianism in communist Poland, it might also be seen as the closing chapter of a broader project.
Wajda takes up the story with Strzemiński already a co-founder and teacher at the Academy of Fine Art in Łódź — an established painter with a formidable reputation. But the film mostly charts the collapse of Strzemiński’s career and, finally, his life, as he becomes a casualty of the Stalinist-backed communist regime that held sway in post-war Poland. His avant-garde works were anathema to the artistic philosophy of socialist realism propounded by a communist regime that mandated art must serve the social purposes of the party — which largely entailed the glorification of the proletariat. It’s on these grounds that Strzemiński is removed from his teaching position and eventually brought to heel by the regime; in want of basic necessities like food and paint, he is forced to take a job painting banners of Stalin.
The party’s political oppression is visualised in a captivating scene that stands out from the rest of the film. As Strzemiński’s sits painting on the floor of his room, a deep red light gradually consumes his canvas and his apartment. This is revealed to be caused by a towering communist banner being hoisted over the façade of the apartment building. One cannot fail to miss the symbolism of the totalitarian regime blocking out the light of the oppressed avant-garde artist. The image also encapsulates something characteristic about Wajda’s style of filmmaking: while visually compelling, it is also quite heavy-handed. And yet this visual instantiation of the film’s politics are perhaps still more palatable than the explicit arguments that Strzemiński’s avatar is made to voice throughout the film.
Despite Wajda’s frequent lack of subtlety, his protagonist is nuanced, thanks almost entirely to Bogusław Linda’s understated performance. Neither Wajda nor Linda attempt to mitigate Strzemiński’s egoism or detachment, and the lack of concern he shows towards his daughter is particularly confronting. While the viewer can certainly sympathise with the conditions of the artist’s misfortunes, they are not expected to sympathise with him on a personal level. Moreover, the film’s critique of the communist regime is complicated by the fact that the state is willing to provide a home for his daughter when Strzemiński is not. So even though socialist-realism comes in for a considerable amount of criticism in Afterimage, the film is also willing to own the potential for solipsism entailed in Strzemiński’s uncompromising formalism.
There is a somber beauty to Wadja’s depiction of the materially sparse world of communist Poland. It is rendered in a muted grey-blue palette, presumably designed to reflect the fading career of the great artist. This is quite out of keeping with the bold blocks of colours that characterise Strzemiński’s work – which we are only allowed to glimpse in the brief shots of his famous neoplastic room. Apart from the bold geometric design of Afterimage’s poster and its opening credits, the only sustained interruptions to its subdued tones are the violent splashes of red in the communist paraphernalia.
As a result, the film’s aesthetic principles seem very much at odds with those of its subject. Strzemiński’s art was formally innovative, and he was fascinated by the process of visual perception. In the latter part of his career he believed that a painting’s surface should have its own internal unity, and so eschewed illusions of space or depth in his work. Wajda makes no attempt to follow Strzemiński by experimenting with shape or depth. As a realist film constructed through continuity editing, Afterimage is formally conservative. It ends up as a fairly conventional biopic about a highly unconventional artist.
Perhaps the film’s strangest contradiction of all is the way it seems to embody certain tenets of the socialist realism philosophy that it ostensibly critiques. While Afterimage certainly does not promote communist ideology, it is still a work of art laden with social purpose or utility, that is, to champion artistic freedom and condemn totalitarianism. Wajda’s film might be social rather than socialist realism, but its purposefulness is nonetheless contradictory to its subject’s insistence on the autonomy of art. So although Strzemiński would presumably have approved of the film’s message, he would probably have had some qualms about the artistic means that Wadja employs to convey it.