Drama digs up ugly chapter in Polish-Jewish story

If Poles have resisted accepting complicity in the murder of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski made things a lot tougher for them with his 2012 film, “Aftermath.”

This powerful, somber drama, set in a muddy Polish village filled with dark secrets, serves up a dose of reality that should make Polish audiences squirm and Jewish audiences feel no better.

“Aftermath” screens three times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, starting Tuesday, July 30 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Brothers Jozek and Franek (Maciej Stuhr, left, and Ireneusz Czop) confront past and present horrific events in “Aftermath.”

The film’s backstory is loosely based on one of the grimmest chapters in Poland’s wartime history: the 1942 Jedwabne massacre, when Polish peasants herded hundreds of Jews into a barn and burned them alive. “Aftermath” fictionalizes the reverberations decades later.

When Franek (Ireneusz Czop), a middle-aged Pole living in Chicago, returns to his home village after 20 years, he finds that his hotheaded brother, Jozek (Maciej Stuhr), had discovered scores of uprooted Jewish tombstones scattered about the village, mostly used for paving stones.

Jozek had dug them up and planted them upright in a wheat field, telling his brother “There’s no one left to look after them.”

He dug up more than tombstones, however. Jozek ignites the fury of fellow villagers, who accuse him of being a “Yid.” Franek, too, cannot understand his brother’s actions, and the two spar mightily throughout the film. That does not stop them from working together to uncover the village’s sordid history.

Turns out Jews were savagely murdered and their land stolen. The more the brothers learn, the more the townsfolk, lacking only torches and pitchforks, turn on them in a string of increasingly brutal acts.

Pasikowski crafted “Aftermath” like a horror film because it does indeed recount a horrific story. It’s dark and stormy, with murky nighttime sequences shot in the woods or at graveyards. Dogs howl. Bones clatter. It’s meant to be chilling.

The narrative remains taut throughout, as the brothers finally uncover the most awful truth, and one of them pays the ultimate price for his persistence.

“Aftermath” is not a perfect film. The brothers’ strained relationship rarely varies in tone, stuck between bickering and all-out fists of fury. It gets tiresome.

Moreover, even in a town guarding its secrets, it’s hard to believe no one knew of a once-thriving Jewish presence or the hideous way it ended, save for a mad old woman in a hospital bed.

Still, Pasikowski committed an act of bravery in making “Aftermath.” While it is true Poland has made strides in reconciling with its decimated Jewish community, there is a long way to go in ridding the country of entrenched anti-Semitism. The director took on the willful ignorance of his countrymen, forcing them to examine a past they probably would have preferred to forget.

Both as finely crafted cinema and as a fictional act of atonement, “Aftermath” does its job well.

“Aftermath,” 8:55 p.m. Tuesday, July 30 at the Castro in S.F., 8:35 Aug. 4 at the CinéArts in Palo Alto, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the California in Berkeley. In Polish with English subtitles. (Unrated, 107 minutes) www.sfjff.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.