A difficult film
Wednesday, 19 December 2012 18:01

TWO of the best films on the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg and “The Pianist” by Roman Polanski, both feature exceptional Germans performing noble actions during World War II. In a similar vein, “In Darkness,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, and Poland’s nominee for the 2012 Oscars, tells the story of a Polish Catholic sewer maintenance worker who first out of greed, and then out of a newfound sense of duty, saves a group of Jews in the sewage of Lviv.

All three stories are based on historical facts, with only some Hollywood icing added.

There is some icing in another Polish film, “Pokłosie” (Consequences), released a few weeks ago. Its director, Władysław Pasikowski calls it a thriller, though this does not seem to be the right category for the film. Perhaps its working title, “Kaddish”, the Jewish prayer read by mourners at funerals, would have been a more apposite choice for the title--and description of its narrative.

Pokłosie describes the ugly side of human nature. The plot is vaguely based on real events, a pogrom which took place in Jedwabne in north eastern Poland in July 1941. Several hundred Jews were burnt alive in a barn by their Polish neighbours. It describes the attempt made by two brothers Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) and Franciszek to break the conspiracy of silence among the residents of the village where the massacre had taken place

The film touches a raw nerve among Poles: that of past anti-Semitism in Poland and its persistence today. In other countries, similar projects led to healthy national introspection. When “Holocaust,” an American mini-series, was broadcast in Germany it was watched by roughly half of the adult population.

Within days of the film’s release, two Polish right-wing weeklies ran cover headlines (pictured above) branding the film’s lead actor, Mr Stuhr, as a Jew (“Żyd”). This may seem strange, given that he is a Christian. (In a recent television appearance, he somewhat embarrassingly hinted that he has a baptism certificate.) But his character in the film is a Pole interested in the history of Jews who uncovers some very ugly truths about Poles. In fact, those headlines appear to be a particularly Polish form of anti-Semitism. The idea is to “judaise” the object of some Poles’ hatred, which is different from hating Jews as such: “I don’t like you, therefore you are a Jew”, rather than “I don’t like you because you are a Jew".

A third right-wing weekly splashed an equally explicit cartoon (pictured below) on its cover, in which a group of people push the Polish coat-of-arms’ white eagle to the abyss, a stone hanging from the bird’s neck. “This is how Polish memory is destroyed”, explains the headline. “Films such as ‘Pokłosie’ make the Polish-Jewish dialogue more difficult”, adds a subtitle.

Far from  providing a moment of catharsis, the film seems to have revived anti-Semitic tendencies. In the articles of the three magazines, some comments are abominable (“many [Polish] peasants had nothing to eat during the [Nazi] occupation … so stealing from a wandering Jew who often had jewels or cash was a way to enrich themselves”). They even come close to denying the Holocaust (“Until today, who knows what happened in that barn in Jedwabne? The film ‘Pokłosie’ shows only one version, the most vicious and toughest for us, Poles.”).

The attacks against Mr. Stuhr relate to the film’s narrative, which is about contemporary attitudes towards past crimes whose factual veracity is not put in doubt by historians of the Holocaust. Anna Bikont, the author of a book “We, from Jedwabne”, wrote a pertinent comparison between the dialogue in “Pokłosie” and some utterings she heard during her research.

The film’s premiere last month led to a huge wave of internet activity with strong doses of anti-Semitism, mostly pointing to the presence of Jews in the state security apparatus of Communist Poland (there were good reasons to be anti-Semitic, the argument goes). Many labeled the film “anti-Polish” and therefore refused to see it. The head of the conservative Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, seemed to agree when he said: “I have not seen ‘Pokłosie’ and do not intend to see it”.

Even so, centrist and leftist media published some serious discussions of the film, praising the director for the courage to approach such subject and the actor for playing the role. More importantly, a company monitoring the web (www.sentione.pl) found that when anonymous commentators post their opinions about Mr. Stuhr they are overwhelmingly (78%) negative, while on Facebook and Twitter (where authors identify themselves) the same subject attracts 72% of positive chatter. In other words, anti-Semitism still exists, but by and large anti-Semites are not ready to show their ugly faces in public.

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