In “Aftermath,” Polish director Wladyslaw Pasikowski takes a daring approach in depicting the Holocaust: He utilizes conventions from the genre that allows audiences to best confront terror and disgust — horror films. Such a choice risks the accusation that he is trivializing an enormity (the film did, in fact, rouse an ugly controversy in Poland, though for different reasons). But by the movie’s end, viewers will have had a soul-searing brush with the unthinkable that far exceeds any real horror film of recent memory, and surpasses in its impact more traditional features and documentaries about the subject.
It begins, like many Polish films, in an atmosphere of oppressive paranoia, obscure guilt, and formless dread. Sometime in the early 2000s, some 20 years after he emigrated to United States (the historical and political context is either barely established or slowly revealed), Franek (Ireneusz Czop) has returned to his native village. His younger brother Józek (Maciej Stuhr) has been having trouble, so Franek reluctantly heads back to the old homestead to find out what’s going on.
The creepiness starts with the cab ride from the airport to the bus station. during which the driver keeps asking vaguely insinuating questions. When Franek arrives at the farm, he must walk along a spooky path through the woods to the house (the foreboding cinematography is by Pawel Edelman, who shot Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”). He senses someone watching, rushes into the dense forest to find out who it is, and . . .
He survives this startling encounter, but when he arrives at the farm his brother is not happy to see him. Still angry about Franek’s “desertion” of the family two decades earlier, Józek is also edgy about something else. After some prodding, Franek learns that his brother has been compulsively collecting old Jewish headstones that had been used as paving and building material in town during the war. It’s just the right thing to do, Józek says by way of explanation.
Józek’s project does not please the neighbors, and both brothers eventually are drawn into a cause with which they initially had no sympathy. In fact, well into the film, the most shocking moment occurs when Franek shows his casual anti-Semitism by complaining about the “yids” responsible for his poor fortunes in Chicago.
But the shocks, and the repressed wickedness, as in all well-done horror films, build slowly, then reach a crescendo that is hard to bear and harder to shake off.
The true story that “Aftermath” is based on is far worse: the Jedwabne incident, which one can read about in Jan T. Gross’s 2001 book “Neighbors.” The scale here is smaller, but more intimate — so much so that the viewer might share a sense of complicity, or victimization, or both.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.