The Nazi occupation of most of Europe during World War II and the Holocaust tested the moral fiber not only of the individual citizen but also of entire nations.
Today, 68 years after the guns fell silent in Europe and the Far East, historians and filmmakers not-yet-born in 1945 are still wrestling with the questions of moral courage, indifference and depravity that comprised the human mosaic in that era.
Most films dealing with the years of the Holocaust focus on the bravery of the resistance and some on the villainy of collaborators, but only a handful of German and French movies have examined the much touchier issue of national guilt.
This is certainly true of American producers and directors, who can smugly pat their nation on its collective back, because it never had to face the harsh test of living under enemy occupation.
Given this preamble, the Polish movie “Aftermath” is a particularly valuable contribution to the examination of national guilt or fortitude.
In the collective Jewish memory, the old Poland was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and there are enough personal and historical accounts to validate the attitude. Yet in the Yad Vashem listing of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their own and their families’ lives to shelter or otherwise aid Jews, Polish Catholics outnumber the rescuers of every other country.
But if the Polish nation, one of the chief victims of Nazi barbarity, had its heroes, it was also home to numerous perpetrators who happily denounced their Jewish neighbors and took over their houses, businesses and fields.
That duality is at the heart of “Aftermath,” a movie so powerful and provocative that its lead actor has received numerous death threats in Poland, while the movie won the Yad Vashem Award at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival.
“Aftermath” is set in the recent past and opens with the arrival of Franek, who has lived for the past 20 years in Chicago and is returning to his native village in Poland to visit his younger brother, Jozek.
Jozek works the family farm, but, to his brother’s puzzlement, is the hostile target of the villagers, who throw rocks through his windows, paint Zyd (Yid) on his barn door, and finally burn his fields.
Gradually, Franek learns that Jozek’s initial offense was to damage public property by excavating the gravestones that had been taken from the Jewish cemetery during the war and used as road pavement. He carefully hauled the old headstones back to his farm, where he established his own impromptu Jewish cemetery.
Jozek has a hard time explaining this strange behavior, even to himself, except that “there was no one else to take care of them.” He has even taught himself the Hebrew alphabet to decipher the names on the grave markers.
But worse is to come. The young farmer starts exploring the village’s dark secret, and eventually Franek, though dismissive of Chicago’s money-grubbing “Yids,” joins in his brother’s quest.
After the German army occupied the village, two SS officers approved a plan by some of the leading citizens to avoid the bother of deporting some 340 Jewish men, women and children.
The proposal called for rounding up all the Jews, locking them inside a barn and then burning the place down. After the Germans gave the green light, the villagers put the plan into action with great enthusiasm, drinking vodka and cursing the incinerated “Christ killers.”
Afterward, the villagers took over the homes and fields of the dead Jews.
The main characters in the film are fictitious, but the central horror, the burning of the village’s entire Jewish population, is based on a wartime atrocity.
For decades, during Poland’s postwar communist regime, the official government version had it that the actual mass killing and burning were the work of the German army.
But in 2001, Jan T. Gross, a Polish-American professor, wrote the book “Neighbors,” which documented in devastating detail that the Polish citizens of the small town of Jedwabne had incinerated hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in a large barn on July 10, 1941.
The book’s revelations were contested and bitterly denounced by nationalist politicians and media as “part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation,” but among many younger Poles, the exposé triggered a curiosity about the Polish Jews they had never known.
One was the Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski, who started to write the screenplay for “Aftermath” 10 years ago.
In one interview, Pasikowski explained that the film is about one “one of the most painful chapters of Polish history. We already have a huge number of movies on the horrors committed by the Germans and the Soviets, and I think it is time to show the horrible things we did ourselves.”
(Originally, the film was to have been titled “Kaddish,” and the present Polish title, “Poklosie,” translates as “Consequences.” Either choice would arguably have made for a more apt title than “Aftermath.”)
The movie has its Polish heroes, foremost the brothers Jozek, played by Maciej Stuhr, one of his country’s best-known actors, and Franek (Ireneusz Czop), as well as an elderly priest, but it is unsparing in depicting the anti-Semitic mob mentality of the mass of villagers.
Predictably, “Aftermath” aroused a storm of controversy in its native land, split mainly along political right/left lines. The primary target has been the actor Stuhr, shown on magazine and newspaper covers as a traitorous “Zyd.”
In an e-mail exchange, Dariusz Jablonski, one of the film’s producers, noted that Stuhr was the public face and defender of the film, championing the “new” Poland against the prejudices of the “old” Poland.
Asked, “What made you decide to produce this film, knowing that many of your countrymen would bitterly resent it,” Jablonski responded, “It is not easy to tell uncomfortable truths to your nation, but that is an artist’s/filmmaker’s job. The truth is unconditional, and when I read Pasikowski’s script, I felt obliged to do it.
“We Poles have to acknowledge that being one of the main victims of World War II, and having at that time so many brave people saving Jewish lives, so often paying with their own lives, we also had a few perpetrators among us. Why do we have to do that? We owe it to millions of Jews who found their good life for centuries on Polish soil.”
Is the movie based on Gross’ book on the actual mass burning of Jews in Jedwabne? “The film is not based on any single book or document, but every element in the film is credible and can be identified as coming from documented stories,” Jablonski responded to the Journal’s question.
Despite the controversy, “Aftermath” won the Critics Prize at Poland’s most important film festival at Gdynia, but it was not chosen as the country’s entry for the Oscars’ foreign-language film competition.
“Aftermath” opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino.