A clean shirt for dirt digging

"Aftermath" (Pokłosie)
written and directed by Władyslaw Pasikowski

I have some general comments on the issue of realism in moviemaking. The comments spring from a recent media discussion around “The Aftermath” (Pokłosie).  If you plan to see this film (and you should) read this post only afterwards since it contains spoilers. 


“The Aftermath” set in the present day, follows two brothers as they discover that during the Second World War their father led other villagers to burn 20 local Jewish families.  The brotherly search corresponds with the growing anger from the locals who want to keep the past secret. 

The reception of the film in some Polish media to a large degree unfortunately mirrors the plot: the locals don’t want the truth to be revealed.  The critics, either being dumb or playing dumb, among many accusations fire up the charges that one of the brothers (the one visiting the village) constantly washes his only shirt and does so even knowing that in a few hours will be digging the mud at night.  Furthermore they find if impossible that the other brother could by himself assemble many heavy Jewish tombstones on his field.  Finally, the climactic crucifixion of that brother committed by his neighbors as the revenge for his discovery made one of the critics “laugh”, due to its, I guess, unrealism and the lack of logic (if the antisemitic villagers kill the brother as the punishment for him uncovering their dirty past they should not kill him in the manner that refers to the suffering of Jesus Christ)


What are movies?  Are they the 1:1 depiction of reality?  Are they platforms on which storytellers show what they think about the reality via its selection, manipulation and re-arrangements of its elements?  

Are we supposed to look for the world on the screen as we know if or to treat the screen as a tool to say something about the subject being presented there?

What is the reality on screen?  Is it something that is meant to conform our way of seeing the world outside of us and inside of us?  Or something to show us the unknown aspect of our perception?  

What’s the purpose of us seeking the magic of moving images?  To conform?  To amuse?  To buckle?  To stimulate?  To sedate?  

So what’s about “improbable” moving of heavy matzevahs accomplished by one person, about the crucifixion of “the traitor” by the Christian community or about washing a white shirt just before digging for the grave?   Let’s focus on the white shirt as an example of a connection between storytelling and our sense of reality. 

If we are to tell a story about something that resembles a dark, almost ritualistic journey to self-discovery would it not be appropriate (or at least artistically possible) to have a hero behave as if he subconsciously was expecting or anticipating the significance of his actions?  For example through constant washing of his only white shirt, as if getting ready for some important discovery, as if knowing that the upcoming events are so “holy” that he needs to be in his best to face them.  

At one point watching the film I indeed wondered “why does he wash his white shirt” instead of borrowing something to wear from his brother.   The questions kept lingering in my mind until the hero (in his white shirt) digging in the mud and dirtying himself came face to face with the shattering and “dirtying” truth.  The “white shirt” realism in this case is a subject to directorial manipulation.  Preparing “this is plausible” or “this is not plausible” reaction to a given scene is therefore an important tool in designing the overall emotional ride of the story.  I think the trick is to do it in such a way that the white shirt washing must be timed in such a way as not to slow down the storytelling and yet to plant a question in a viewer mind.  That question will find its answer and conclusion when the hero reaches the destination of his journey.  Such a read assumes that there was something within the subconsciousness of visiting brother that corresponded with his final finding.   

Analysis of the climatic crucifixion in “The Aftermath” would take more time since it is more daring and complex narrative maneuver.  The “realism” of this scene was a subject of media debates where some attacked the scene by saying that recently there were no cases of murders by crucifixion (this was spoken be proud right wing critics accusing the film of lies) while others would dig out the fact that indeed a few years ago there was a case of such a murder (the motives were unrelated to racial hate).   

Listening to those debates makes my stomach turn.  Let me just say that I found “the crucifixion scene” properly chilling and provocative.     

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