The last work of Poland’s most revered post-war filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, Afterimage is a fiercely committed obituary of Wladyslaw Strzemiński, one of his country’s most strikingly visionary contemporary artists, victimised by the communist regime all the way to his death in 1952. Played by Boguslaw Linda, whose features bear more than a passing resemblance to both Wajda and Strzemiński, this is a fitting swan song to Wajda’s career. Since Wajda’s career was launched at about the same time this story takes place, his intimate knowledge of the background is not necessarily just the result of thorough research but also an expression of personal frustrations and pain he experienced himself during long patches of his own artistic life.
Afterimage presents an argument about visual art in a crushingly realistic, Stalinist drama, a biopic of Strzemiński (Boguslaw Linda), whose theory of Unism advocated for art (specifically painting) to be self-contained works of purity without contrast. They have no ideology nor morals but are singular forms of abstraction. Debating this theory within the story of its creation, Wajda combats the trudging poverty and hardship confronted by those artists who didn’t agree with the communist government’s increasingly nationalist policies, with a focus on visual anarchy in form. Art escapes its bounds through Strzemiński’s teaching, friends in the art community and when facing the questions and judgements of his young daughter (the Sphinx-faced Bronislawa Zamachowska).
Yet despite his influence and talent, Strzemiński refuses to cower to the government. Wrestling with his conscience and his empty stomach, the artist refuses to be drafted as a political soldier and suffers the ostracized consequences of the blacklist. His students fight for and alongside him but their efforts become either highly politicized or romantically inclined, both of which drive Strzemiński further into his stubborn artistic isolation.
A wonderfully heartfelt performance by Linda as the systematically bullied artist, drawing the eye with every facial nuance. And that the character is without an arm and a leg merely adds to the eccentric affection. His hobble, his way of eating, his painting and the way he lights his cigarettes all contribute to an idiosyncratic picture of a man whose life has been built upon tragic pride. This portrait of an ageing artist engages with and refuses the idea that artistic and social isolation is anything but selfish. In the face of totalitarianism, an artist has a responsibility to fight back. In fact, his influences will pass on to those around them whether they intend it to or not. The most gripping and violent piece of cinematography in the film (shot beautifully by Pawel Edelman) comes during the brutal vandalism of the students’ art.
Strzemiński is the old guard of art and politics, someone whose revolutionary stance changed too late in life to do anything but inspire those that came after. Ultimately, it’s a fitting swan song for the master filmmaker who himself continued to work in uncertain economic and political climates. Afterimage may not contain everything Wajda has said or wished to have said, but it is a moving tribute to a career marred by personal and national trauma.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.