Aftermath may be the most controversial film to come out of Eastern Europe. Writer/director Wladyslaw Pasikowski began work on it after reading Princeton University historian Jan T. Gross' 2001 nonfiction book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, which recounts the real-life story of a Polish village where townspeople massacred more than 300 Jews in 1941 at the behest of Nazi forces. The book created a firestorm of debate about Jewish-Polish relations during World War II and shifted the global focus of Holocaust research. It also inspired Pasikowski to create a fictional film that would be reviled as anti-Polish propaganda by officials and pundits on the far right of Poland's political spectrum. It reportedly took seven years for the Polish Film Institute — which exists to support movies of this kind through public funding — to agree to help finance the film, and only under public pressure. Aftermath went on to serve as Poland's official entry to this year's Oscars even though it was banned by a number of Polish cinemas.
Though known mainly in his native land for action movies, Pasikowski has crafted a chilling character-driven drama in Aftermath. The story is set in the early 2000s and revolves around two brothers and the mysterious local history of their small village. After 20 years in America, Franek (Ireneusz Czop) returns to the family farm still worked by his younger brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr), only to find that Jozek has become a pariah in his own hometown. Neighbors shout at him on the street, assault him without provocation in bars and suggest that Franek take Jozek with him when he returns to America.
For reasons Jozek himself doesn't fully understand, he has taken to reclaiming the Jewish grave markers that were unearthed during the war and used as village paving stones. He is literally digging up the past. Winner of Best Actor at the Polish Film Academy awards for his turn as Jozek, Stuhr captures the unarticulated confusion of one who senses his entire life has been based on a terrible secret he can't quite bring himself to face.
Aftermath is anything but a typical Holocaust story. There's no Gentile savior (as in Schindler's List) or Allied soldiers to help set things right. The film avoids flashback altogether in telling its tale, preferring to focus on profound yet sometimes unacknowledged effects of past atrocities on present-day life. 'Why did you do it?" asks Franek of his younger brother regarding the Jewish gravestones. "Because some things are more wrong than others," he replies. The soon-to-retire local priest tries to protect Jozek from the violent impulses of his flock because he believes Jozek is doing God's will.
Eerily reminiscent of Southern Gothic fiction, Aftermath also indulges in some surprising horror-movie tropes. Older brother Franek — who's initially reluctant to examine the past and embodies the sort of casual, modern anti-Semitism the movie aims to indict — repeatedly finds himself venturing into inexplicably dark forests and abandoned buildings as ominous music swells on the soundtrack. But sometimes wandering around in the dark is what you have to do if you're going to arrive at the truth.