As last movies by great filmmakers go, Andrzej Wajda's "Afterimage" feels vividly connected to the Polish auteur's beginnings, yet also acts as the kind of haunting close that sums up a life. Based on the ignominious final years of Poland's avant-garde stalwart and noted theoretician Wladyslaw Strzemiński, played by Boguslaw Linda, it depicts the heavy toll communism's tightening iron grip had on post-World War II Eastern Europe, while simultaneously paying grim tribute to the battered pride of a committed artist.
Wajda, who died last October at age 90, burst onto the cinema scene in the 1950s with a war trilogy about roiling youth ("A Generation," "Kanal," "Ashes & Diamonds") that cemented his worldwide reputation as a vibrant, emotional chronicler with slyly commentative undercurrents. He made movies under a watchful, punitive regime, working in allegory when needed, criticizing openly when opportunity arose.
The irony is that the subject of this reliably political filmmaker's swan song is a painter who battled the very idea that art should reflect some unsparing, commonly held reality, or connect to the masses. Strzemiński's early contemporaries were constructivists and cubists, and he founded Poland's first modern art museum, which was also one of Europe's first. To him, individualism in art was everything.
It's the threat that Strzemiński lived under that allows Wajda to affectingly link arms with a countryman of divergent aesthetics. It's 1948 when the movie opens, and as a ravaged Poland succumbs to Russia's most notorious export, Strzemiński is either happily teaching devoted students at Lodz's premier art school, or painting on his apartment floor. Though missing an arm and leg from the Great War, he doesn't act disabled, readily expressing his irritation at an unfurled banner of Stalin over his windows by puncturing it with his crutch.
The act puts him on the radar of the state, which wants him to cooperate with its new socialist realism directive to the nation's artists. His refusal earns a condemnation, then costs him his teaching position, followed by the revoking of his artist association permit, which quickly makes him unhirable as even a painter of Communist figureheads on banners. (In a cruel touch, one bureaucrat whispers her admiration as she denies him food rations, adding, "Did you really know Chagall?")
He's still beloved by his students, who meet with him secretly for lessons and to help him commit to paper a treatise on art. But when his work is removed from the museum, and his students' hastily assembled exhibition at a YMCA is destroyed by state goons — a slow pan across the shattered pieces on the floor is like taking in propagandistic art's terrible cousin — the message is clear: the goal is obliteration of a great man's name and stature.
Strzemiński's humiliations are steady and bleak, and Wajda's supreme focus is in perfect concert with Pawel Edelman's elegantly cold, marvelously textured cinematography. The gravitational pull, however, is in Linda's performance, one that encompasses defiance, disgust, befuddlement and even glum humor. Taking his 12-year-old daughter Nika (a powerful Bronislawa Zamachowska) to the cinema on what little money he has, and confronted with state-sponsored newsreels about terrible socialist art, he deadpans, "We made a bad choice." Her eyes betraying a rapidly aging soul, Nika is an especially heartbreaking character. Though she dutifully shows up to care for a father who doesn't give much back — her sculptor mother and Strzemiński's ex, unseen, is ailing separately in a hospital — she's compelled to go along with a regime whose indoctrination at least comes with much-needed clothes.
Wajda got a long life's work out of chronicling the messy relationship between people and institutionalized repression, and he didn't succumb to sentimentality with his last hurrah. "Afterimage" may depict a losing battle for one uncompromising artist, but it's also a bracing final dispatch for the uncompromising artist who survived long enough to tell of it.
In Polish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena