Powidoki begins in a sunny meadow upon the mountains, where cheerful young painters, with their easels and brushes, are admiring the natural landscape. Despite the absence of an arm and a leg, the animated Professor Władysław Strzemiński rolls down the hill to the ecstatic shouts of his students prior to delivering a moving lecture on art as personal expression to his captivated audience of smiling artists. Yet the warm and optimism is extremely short-lived. This introductory scene is the first and last experience of happiness, hope and joy in the entire film. From here, it is an uninterrupted descent into despair.
Next, we find Professor Strzemiński sitting on the floor in his flat mixing paint, pondering upon a white canvas. Suddenly, the canvas turns a shade of red. A massive communist banner bearing Stalin’s face is being installed over his window filtering the sunlight. In a state of fury, Strzemiński hobbles over to the window and with his crutch rips a cut into the banner. This symbolically rich and potent scene captures the film’s central conflict: the free-thinking artist resisting the state imposed art policy of socialist realism. However, the banner is monumental. Meanwhile, the slit in it is small. The incident results in the first of many encounters for Strzemiński with state authorities who warn him of the consequences of being in opposition to the government. Strzemiński, standing by his principles, will not abandon his ideals of an individual and ever-evolving approach to artistic expression. This conviction brings him agony, suffering and ultimately doom.
What follows is blow after blow to the dignity of our main character. He is removed from his teaching position at the university. The gallery showcasing his work at the museum is eliminated. When the young students he inspired attempt to hold an exhibition, thugs destroy their paintings before they can be shown. And it gets worse. Strzemiński loses his accreditation as an artist so he can no longer be employed, the supply store will not even sell him paint and without ration cards he begins to starve. At every attempt for help and mercy, he is met with coldness and indifference. Friends are unable to assist. He becomes increasing frail, ultimately dying alone in a miserable hospital leaving behind little more than an unfinished artistic manifesto and an orphan child.
Quite grim indeed.
When we look for subplots or other characters within which to take some solace, we find none and neither does Strzemiński. He is indifferent to his hardened daughter. When young and radiant Hanka, a former student transcribing his book moves toward a romantic encounter, she is rebuffed. There is a great void of joy.
As an audience, we are witnessing a slow horror and feel as battered as Strzemiński. Most will leave the theater dumbfounded and depressed.
However, it is the film’s unfiltered realism that is its strength. There are no illusions here. No fantasies. Strzemiński was the most renowned Polish avant-garde of his time, who would not cave to socialist realism and thus had to be smothered by the state, thoroughly, as an example for others.
It would be much more pleasant if we could have a romanticized Strzemiński who was some kind of revolutionary hero, producing his best work in response to oppression and censorship, cultivating and conspiring an underground artistic resistance all while loving fully and passionately in some romantic affair. But no- Sorry. Because that is not how it was.
We have to come to terms with the uncomfortable.
Strzemiński was unable to land a single counterpunch against socialist realism. Indeed, he is too preoccupied with the losing struggle to even continue his meager existence. Even at the moment of death, when we could hope the principled Strzemiński would taking pride and honor in his conviction and principles, he is likely too exhausted, defeated and demoralized even for this reflection.
Wajda’s fiercely anti-communist message sidelines many of the elements often present in a well-rounded film. Again, Powidoki has few layers and no surprises. What is left is the stark and naked tragedy of a death of an artist by socialist realism.