Wartime horror paves way to Polish mystery in 'Aftermath'
Wladyslaw Pasikowski's Polish dramatic thriller"Aftermath" makes for one strange and power-packed movie genre mash-up.
Jan Duszynski's nerve-jangling score combines with Pawel Edelman's haunting, misty, impeccably composed widescreen nocturnal forest scenes to create the impression we could be watching another "Evil Dead" horror sequel.
The horror-movie tone Pasikowski establishes turns out to be slightly misleading, and ultimately unnecessary. "Aftermath" has something far scarier in store than demonic possession and satanic rituals: human nature.
"Aftermath" is a fictionalized drama based on events that took place in World War II Poland around the time of the Nazi occupation.
What it reveals about the treatment of Polish Jews by their countrymen has already been branded as anti-Polish propaganda by nationalists. Some theaters in Poland even banned the movie.
The plot begins with middle-aged Franek Kolina (Ireneusz Czop) returning to his Polish homeland 20 years after living in Chicago.
Surprisingly perhaps, he's not impressed by Chicago's shabby treatment of Polish immigrants, but apparently he preferred the Windy City to remaining in his homeland for two decades.
Franek has come home after learning that his brother's wife inexplicably left him.
Franek's arrival is met with disapproval by his younger brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) and the local vicar (Jerzy Radziwilowicz).
Their hostility appears to be centered around the fact Franek did not attend his parents' funerals.
But there's something else, something more mysterious than a breach of social etiquette here.
Why has Jozek become something of a local pariah, subjected to acts of petty vandalism and periodic beatings in the tavern?
Franek discovers that Jozek has been digging up concrete slabs from the main roads and relocating them in a cornfield, because they are Jewish cemetery grave stones, stolen and used as pavers.
We don't really know why Jozek, a non-Jew, has made it a personal mission to return the stones to their rightful places. Or what compelled him to learn Hebrew. We also don't know why his brother Franek, who appears to harbor anti-Semitic feelings, joins him in his mad quest to dig up and restore the stones.
But we accept that it's the right thing to do.
Now, why do powerful locals put the squeeze on the brothers for asking questions about their vanished Jewish neighbors?
Why do they threaten the brothers, smash their windows and decapitate their dog? (Although, that last action would be right at home in the horror movie canon.)
Instead of opting for a standard big-scale Holocaust guilt drama, Pasikowski directs "Aftermath" as a small community mystery, a Polish Hardy Boys adventure merged with elements from "The Reader" and a rural horror film of choice.
He wisely avoids using easy, unnecessary flashbacks. He lets his actors carry the narrative without those crutches and derives much greater power from their descriptions of actions past.
It could be argued that "Aftermath" earns its credentials as a fact-based horror film.
Even if its frequent forays into that genre become too literal and excessive, Pasikowski's capacity for illustrating the inhumanity of humans still delivers the chills.
"Aftermath"★ ★ ★
Starring: Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Jerzy Radziwilowicz
Directed by: Wladysaw Pasikowski
Other: Exclusively at the Music Box Theatre, Chicago. A Menemsha Films release. Unrated, but contains violence, adult language. 107 minutes