Aftermath is a lightning rod in its native Poland, where it’s been slandered as “anti-Polish propaganda; it tackles the country’s lingering legacy of anti-Semitism via a tale that’s been crafted more as an overwrought thriller than as a straightforward historical drama. Taking as its inspiration a 1941 pogrom in eastern Poland, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s film charts the eye-opening saga of Franek (Ireneusz Czop), who, 20 years after abandoning his family to live in Chicago, returns to his rural Polish hometown. There, he finds that his farmer brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) is the subject of intense harassment from his neighbors. Jozek has rankled the locals by digging up a street that was originally lined with gravestones of Jewish Holocaust victims, and acquiring other gravestones from around the area to erect in a field as a makeshift cemetery. Given that their family isn’t Jewish, Franek finds this behavior more than a little nonsensical—especially since he also harbors his own prejudiced feelings against “Chicago Jews,” whom he bitterly believes control everything.
Jozek explains to Franek that he’s undertaken this task because he viewed this treatment of Jewish graves as simply wrong. That virtuous motivation is dramatized so sketchily, however, that Jozek’s impulse never seems like a natural outgrowth of the character—it's more a plot device aimed at delivering a message. What that lesson is, however, remains hazy for most of Aftermath, which operates as a mystery about the town’s terrible complicity in World War II horrors. Employing a jarringly intense score that’s too thriller-ish for such historical-inquiry material, writer-director Pasikowski stages his action as a whodunit in which Jozek and Franek snoop about and discover clues that suggest the area’s Jews were murdered by those closest to them, all while the duo is forced to confront mounting resistance—and anti-Semitic slurs—from citizens who would prefer their awful secrets to remain buried.
Given that Franek is repeatedly slammed for failing to attend his parents’ funerals, his sleuthing with his brother turns Aftermath into a portrait of Franek’s awakened consciousness about the past and the dead, as well as his aroused conscience toward his own intolerance, and his family’s. The problem is that the revelations lying in wait are telegraphed so early on that the film plays like a drawn-out, preachy slog. Pasikowski isn’t interested in actual characters or narrative nuance; rather, the prime concern here is censuring Polish anti-Semitism, which, no matter how righteous an aim, eventually comes at the expense of engaging storytelling. Jozek and Franek find it so easy to uncover long-hidden truths that the material becomes contrived, with each scene designed only to move the procedural one step closer to predictable climactic surprises.
Though an early sequence involving Franek searching for a shadowy figure in the woods proves to be an intriguing plot development that also subtly speaks to the film’s underlying themes, the rest of Aftermath forgoes allegorical complexity in favor of one-dimensional suspense. Between its blunt dialogue and even blunter imagery, culminating with a crucifixion that makes plain the targets of Pasikowski’s censure, it’s noble intentions are trumped by its ungainly execution.