In the Polish Aftermath
In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past
But the movie is genre-bending in other ways. Pokłosie is, for example, also devoid of the genre’s favorite stock character: the righteous Gentile savior. Jozef Kalina comes closest to this role as we watch him stubbornly memorializing the dead in one of his fields. But Jozef is on a fool’s errand, despite his good intentions. The dead cannot be saved, and Jozef, living on their land, is guilty by association, plagued by an irresolvable mourning that leads to his destruction. And Jozef isn’t responsible for discovering the truth about the Jews’ murderers, either. That quest is reserved for his brother Franciszek, who is a reluctant detective. When Franciszek first arrives in the village, he doesn’t seem bothered by the anti-Semitic graffiti that greets him. Instead, he’s annoyed that he had to return to the Old Country. In America, where he now lives, there are no bad memories, though there are plenty of “Jews running the country,” Franciszek tells Jozef, as they fix a combine together.
Played by the acclaimed Polish film and stage actor Ireneusz Czop, Franciszek captures the off-the-cuff, lightly anti-Semitic talk that pops up in Polish public discourse. Yet, at the same time, Franciszek hunts down court records, digs up bones, wanders the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, and asks hard questions of a dying old lady, the last of the generation who lived through the war.
Anonymous Polish villagers wreak havoc on the Kalina brothers as they conduct their search, but they are never shown in the act. Only the evidence of their work is left behind—a rock through a window, graffiti on a barn door, flames engulfing a field. When we do see the villagers, they appear as innocent bystanders, shifting blame to others: delusional in their self-perception of absolute goodness. In Pokłosie, there is no uniformed boogieman to scapegoat, no righteous character to identify with, no absolute victims for whom we can have empathy. By the end of the film, everyone is implicated in the violence of the past. The safe old categories no longer hold.
Through last winter, Pasikowski’s film provoked an outpouring of public criticism, launching a second round of the Neighbor’s debate that began in 2001. Soon after the film’s release, Polish patriots and ethno-nationalists accused the film of being part of a Jewish conspiracy to tarnish Poland’s reputation. Obsessed with the film’s tangential relationship to Neighbors, they began invoking Gross’ name and attacked Pokłosie for misrepresenting Poland’s history. “The reaction was not a shock,” Dariusz Jabłoński, one of the film’s producers, said at the Nozyk Synagogue panel. “We knew we were dealing with a subject that was still very much a taboo.”
Still, it was surprising, even to Gross, that the one who received the most ire was Maciej Stuhr, the actor who played Jozef. Soon after he began receiving death threats, Wprost, a national magazine, featured him on its cover, provocatively scrawled in anti-Semitic graffiti meant to echo both the film and the very real harassment to which Stuhr was being subjected. Inside, Magdalena Rigamonti’s article, “Stuhr, You Jew,” chronicled the anti-Semitic backlash against Stuhr—who doesn’t identify as Jewish, though the right-wing press continues to insist he is of Jewish origin. Rigamonti didn’t necessarily approve of the vitriol being hurled at Stuhr, but wrote that she believed Stuhr had brought it upon himself. “He has become a symbol of simplicity and manipulating history for commercial gain,” she wrote.
Others have rallied behind the film. Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s most widely read newspapers, embraced the work as “outstanding,” while Dwutygodnik, an online arts and culture weekly, ran several simultaneous reviews that all agreed Pokłosie was an important film for all the reasons that made it so hard to watch. For Tokarska-Bakir, the public debate has been emblematic of how far, or not, Poland has come since Neighbors. “The situation is much better and much worse,” she said. “There are so many more people who are inhabiting this space of anti-anti-Semitics. And, at the same time, there is much more acceptance of anti-Semitism in the mainstream culture. Positions have been reinforced.”
Still, much like the film, the one voice that seems strikingly absent from the discussion is that of the Jewish community. Poles are forced to work through the tragic past alone. Even if Jewish audiences from abroad were engaged in the debate, Pasikowski suggests that they could never offer the Poles any real comfort or redemption. In the final scene of the film, a Jewish youth group, like those that frequently come to Poland to tour Holocaust sites, prays at Jozef Kalina’s virtual cemetery. As they shuckle, they stand entirely apart from the film’s action, unaware and untouched by what has just transpired in this little town. They look like alien invaders. Their return does not offer comfort or redemption but only dramatizes the distance between the Jews of the past, the Jews of the present, and the Poles, who exist outside the frame, no better off than before the truth was revealed.
The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years