All first films are alike; each final film is final in its own way. When Polish director Andrzej Wajda made A Generation in 1954, he already had three shorts and an apprenticeship with filmmaker Aleksander Ford under his belt, but it was the four-minute unbroken tracking shot of a Warsaw slum that introduced Wajda to the world.
Sixty-plus years and 40 films later, Afterimage marks Wajda’s departure—from this earthly plane, but certainly not from memory.
Set in 1950s Poland, during the Stalinist rule, Afterimage centers on the renowned avant-garde artist, Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda), a professor who lost his leg and arm in World War I. His pen and paintbrush have turned him into a well-recognized member of the Polish art scene, a beloved teacher and theoretician, and a threat to the Communist regime.
On more or less a whim, the Minister of Culture decides that Strzemiński is out. His work is destroyed, his memberships are revoked, and his food stamps are cut off. Strzemiński’s students try to help their favorite professor out, but they can only do so much in a system this crushing.
Strzemiński accepts this humiliation in stride. What matters to him is staying alive long enough to finishes his life’s work, A Theory of Vision.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see Afterimage as Wajda’s Theory of Vision with a little memoir thrown in. Afterimage may be Strzemiński’s bio-pic, but the images of endless breadlines, drafty hospital beds, and cigarette smoke hanging in the cold Polish air come across like memories tattooed on Wajda’s brain. As are the vibrant and lush colors that Strzemiński works with, the clear and concise way he speaks, and his ability to push out the horrors of the world and focus on what truly matters: images. Some people can do that for a lifetime.
Afterimage premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2016. On October 9, Andrzej Wajda passed away from pulmonary failure. He was 90 years old.