They say never meet your idols, and it might also be advisable not to make films about them but Andrzej Wajda always defied such cliches. Some of his early masterpieces – Man of Iron and Man of Marble – were fictional odes to Solidarity hero Lech Walesa and then he concluded a loose trilogy with a direct portrayal in 2013’s Walesa: Man of Hope. The 90-year-old auteur turned his attention to the renowned avant garde artist Władysław Strzemiński in what transpired to be his final film, Afterimage. Strzemiński rose to prominence in the interwar years.
Having lost an arm and a leg in the First World War he took up the brush and was an internationally acclaimed painter and theoretician by the time he ran afoul of the Communist government of the 1950s. He seems like the ideal subject for Wajda with undeniable parallels to be found between their formal dynamism in their chosen fields and having both suffered beneath the yoke of Soviet-imposed social realism. However, rather than embracing Strzemiński’s experimental nature, or channelling the energy of his dissidence, this partial biopic is a reverential but sedate drama. Perhaps this is to be expected from a nonagenarian director, but it’s worth remembering the kinetic Walesa: Man of Hope was only made three years earlier.
After a stylish title card, the whole screen turns a deep red in a playful early scene that sees Strzemiński’s (Boguslaw Linda) Lodz apartment window covered by an enormous Stalin banner. He puckishly rips a hole in it – to let in some natural light for his work – but his impertinence goes unappreciated by the Minister of Culture. From that point on the work settles into a mostly solemn tone accompanied by handsome visuals and mostly broad brush strokes. The government first try order Strzemiński to fall in line, then they more and more aggressively interfere with his life in retaliation for his obstinance. He remains adored by his pupils – even after being relieved of his lectureship – and venerated by contemporaries, but it becomes clear that this more due to his mind than his manner.
Linda’s performance is one of charisma but not so much charm; he’s brilliant but brittle, carrying deeply held scars despite the missing limbs being played down as an incidental detail. His demeanour was clearly the reason for his divorce and it’s piercingly evidenced in his relationships with a lovestruck student (Zofia Wichłacz) and his own long-suffering and precocious young daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska). Wise beyond her years, she has a curt, verging on antagonistic relationship with her old man, but she’s a ray of light in an otherwise grave endeavour. For all of the perfection of the period-detail browns and greys, Afterimage could have done with a touch more colour.
The Kinoteka Film Festival takes place from 17 March-5 April. For more info go to kinoteka.org.uk.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson