By Jake Watt
14th June 2017

After watching ‘To Stay Alive: A Method’, ‘That’s Not Me’ and now ‘Afterimage’, a recurring theme seems to be appearing in my selections from this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

Whether it be poetry, singing, acting, or painting... being an artist is fucking hard.

‘Afterimage’ is the final film of Polish director Andrzej Wajda (‘Danton’, ‘Man of Iron’, ‘Man of Marble’), who passed away in 2016 at the age of 90. It is a biopic about avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda, ‘Battle of Warsaw 1920’, ‘Psy’, ‘Tato’), who battled Stalinist orthodoxy, his own physical impairments, and the rise of communism in post-war Poland to advance his progressive ideas about art.

Strzeminski, who worked with Chagall and Malevich and introduced abstraction and modernity to Polish art, lost an arm and a leg in the First World War. From our introduction to him in 1945, as a beloved teacher at the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz, the steadily escalating narrative traces his loss of authority, respectability and comfort. Such is the price of an artist's independence and integrity - the Stalinist government punishes him for ignoring their definition of Social Realism.


This artist refuses to serve the state so the state turns his life into an Orwellian nightmare. He loses his job, his marriage, his status, his living. His students and friends remain faithful to him until they have to give him up to establish their own careers. Aiding Strzeminski leaves them vulnerable to arrest or even "disappearance", as befalls the student who loves him and types out his theories about art. Without an artist ID card Strzeminski can't buy paint or even take a job as an illustrator, far beneath his abilities. Still, this artist holds true to his vision.

The actors are cast perfectly, with powerful performances by Boguslaw Linda and Bronislawa Zamachowska, who portrays Strzeminski’s long-suffering daughter. The widescreen photography of Pawel Edelman and design by Marek Warszewski simultaneously evoke the monochromatic drabness of Polish life under communism while remaining quite beautiful and expressionistic, with odd flashes of colour skilfully deployed, such as a scene where all of the light in Strzeminski’s apartment turns red, after a giant banner of Stalin is placed over his window.

‘Afterimage’ can be viewed as a timely rallying call against the spread of right wing governments in Europe, and defending the individual vision against a proscriptive government is very much a statement for our time.

Wajda was inarguably one of Poland's most important directors, with his searing anatomies of Polish history and politics, including his post-war trilogy, ‘A Generation’, ‘Kanal’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’. ‘Afterimage’ can be viewed as a timely rallying call against the spread of right wing governments in Europe, and defending the individual vision against a proscriptive government is very much a statement for our time. The film has few out and out villains, with most of Strzeminski's persecutors sympathetic but powerless or unwilling to resist.

The title refers to the artist's lecture on the physiological basis of vision. The eye retains an afterimage of what it has viewed. It is never an exact duplication of the physical reality - such as Social Realism purports to be - but inflected by the artist's character and emotions. Hence the importance of Strzeminski’s memory of blue, his lost wife's eyes, and the white flowers he dyes blue to bring to her snowy grave.

For viewers and those inspired by Strzeminski and Wadja's work, this film serves as a lasting afterimage of their artistic legacy.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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