A Haunting Thriller on the Imagined Jews of Poland's Present

The power of 'Aftermath,' an uncomfortable film about a Polish village's dark secret, comes from its reliance on the viewer's imagination. In this realist nightmare, the Jews are only imagined.

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When you approach it, on a gray summer afternoon, it looks like just another soccer field. The local college student who’s playing tour guide today nods and says, in Polish-accented Russian, that we should keep walking. Each step we take is careful and measured. It’s beginning to drizzle; the rest of our group decided to stay behind, at the roadside.

“I’m a Cohen, I can’t,” one said as we approached the soccer field, in a reference to the prohibition against members of Judaism's ancient priestly class, including those whose last name is Cohen, from entering cemeteries in most cases.

“26,000 Jews lived here in Brest-Litovsk before the war,” the student says calmly as we walk toward a goal. “By the end of the war, there were 40. This was the Jewish cemetery which the Nazis destroyed. Afterwards Stalin had the gravestones removed, had the streets paved with them, and the ground, they mowed over.”

The student shows us the country road which was once paved with these very gravestones. It is unpaved now, the stone markers now piled in an alcove near the Brest military fortress, and the cemetery – a field where local schoolchildren now play soccer.

The images are so common that they’ve become universal. Travel across Eastern Europe, and you’ll find the same piles of stones thrown into garages, the same forgotten cemeteries and prewar Hebrew names now disappeared into oblivion – and the same amnesiac villages and towns.

Cross the Polish-Belarusian border and drive 70 kilometers northeast of Brest, and you’ll come to Jedwabne, a once-anonymous village in Poland whose story has been brilliantly evoked on screen by Polish producer Dariusz Jablonski and director Wladyslaw Pasikowski, in “Poklosie,” or “Aftermath,” now opening in New York.

Based on "Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland," by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross, a detailed historical account of the 1941 massacre in Jedwabne - when, according to Gross's faculty website, "virtually every one of the town’s 1,600 Jewish residents was killed in a single day" by their own neighbors - the film offers a brutal and unflinching portrait of evil in its most naked form. Here, there’s no Amon Goeth, the commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp who featured in "Schindler's List," no Bach piano chords or deceptively sophisticated villains, and no Oskar Schindler either, not a single moment of redemption.

In the movie, the Polish-born Franek has returned to his village, after 20 years in America, to visit his younger brother, Jozek. The village is just as pastoral as when he left, the wheat fields just as lush, the locals just as superstitious. But somehow it is different in his eyes: Since his last visit his parents have died, the priest who baptized him is retiring - his successor is a power-hungry seminarian - and there is something eerie about the forest, strange sounds seem to emerge from the thick woods. And in what feels like a scene from an old thriller, as Franek enters his childhood home, a mysterious rock is thrown through Jozek’s window. “Tourists,” his brother mutters.

Franek soon realizes that his brother has become a village pariah. His wife and children have left him, and he tends to the family farm alone, hated by the villagers for some unknown offense.

A walk to the family’s wheat fields explains the strange hostility toward his brother: The camera shifts, suddenly revealing, a swath of land with reerected gravestones. Jozek, in the grip of some crazed compulsion, has collected old Jewish burial markers from throughout the village, torn them out of the local roads and bought them from local farmers. “The Nazis destroyed the cemetery ... I couldn’t do otherwise,” Jozek says. He leans over, brushes some dirt off, and reads the Hebrew inscription, “Pani Breyda, daughter of Itzhak of Kobrin.”

Franek is baffled, almost afraid of his brother’s madness.

"I think it’s somehow not right,” Jozek insists, eyes racing. “I had to, because all of these people were ...”

“Zhidki?” Franek asks, watching his brother.

“Jews,” Jozek corrects him firmly. “They may not be Christian, but every human being has the right to a grave.”

And so unfolds that timeless epic - this time set in contemporary Poland - of one man against a village, or perhaps two men against a village. The tension mounts, as the locals refuse to acknowledge whatever Jozek is obsessed with commemorating. The peasants threaten the brothers, call them "Zhids" and vandalize their house, set fire to their fields and to the Jewish gravestones and then behead the family dog with an ax - “the way they do it here”.

But Jozek, and now even Franek, are tireless in searching for the truth of what happened there so long ago, and in determining who will suffer for their people’s sins. Villager by villager, record by record, the two demand answers: Why were the elderly so enraged by the reminder of the Jews? What happened to the Jews, and how is it that none of the accounts include Germans? Where did the Jews disappear to? They are met with blank eyes, mobs of infuriated old men and their defensive, thuggish sons.

“I never killed neighbors,” one of the old villagers insists.

“Neighbors perhaps not,” Franek says. “But zhids, yes.”

The story of the film's production is a saga of its own, 10 years of battles between the producers and Polish public opinion. “It is a Polish film, by Poles, about Poles and for Poles,” says Dariusz Jablonski, one of the producers. “Sixty years under Communism - we weren’t taught what Jews were. It was not easy to live there after the war. Only after 1989, we learned that half of the six million Poles killed were Jews.”

Jablonski, with the sweep of a hand, describes the response of the Polish media to the film. “They told us, ‘You will damage the image of Poland internationally.’” The producers have been attacked in mainstream Polish media and are fighting a lawsuit by the Polish Film Institute demanding the full repayment of its funding. Maciej Stuhr, the film star playing Jozek, has been blacklisted by the Polish film council and publicly defamed as an anti-Polish propagandist. “It has forced Poland to ask itself a painful question,” Jablonski said. “What does one do about dark pasts?”

The film itself has a raw feeling about it: The screenplay is unfinished at times, details harried and uncut, characters not fully developed – but the rough edges may offer a fitting blank canvas, a lack of specificity which only emboldens this drama’s shocking ending.

The power of this uncomfortable film is in its reliance on the human imagination. There are no Shoah scenes, no flashbacks, no Jewish melodies in B minor – it is a film made up of simple shots which are overwhelmingly current but which somehow retain the past in the constant foreground. In this realist nightmare the Jews are only imagined, and therein lies its greatest strength: The horrors are not limited to film effects and director’s cuts. They are all the worse, because they exist in the mind of the viewer alone.

Perhaps this is the producers’ hope in making this film: that Holocaust memory does not leave us, that it continues to exist in our collective imagination, and hopefully, in humanity’s collective conscience.

Maciej Stuhr, left, and Ireneusz Czop as brother Jozek and Franek in 'Aftermath.'Credit: Menemsha Films

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