Classic Style and a New View of Polish History

in 24th Tromsø International Film Festival

by Alexander Yanakiev

Poland about 50 years ago: two decades have elapsed since the end of the Second World War. Wounds seem to have healed, and Socialism has ultimately set in.

In his first Polish-language film, Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski presents a different picture — and a dramatic one, too.

Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a convent-bound war orphan, is about to take her vows. The mother superior wants her to meet her aunt, of whom the girl has known nothing. The reunion with her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), proves to be fateful. She informs Anna of her true identity: she was born a Jew and her name was Ida Lebenstein. The women undertake a journey to find the graves of Anna’s parents. A great wave of knowledge overwhelms Ida: the life behind the high walls of the convent, modern music and young people, the life stories of her aunt and her parents. She starts searching for her identity. It is an important layer of the narrative of the film and part of its power, as anyone would have asked oneself in such a complicated situation: Who am I after all? What should I stick to? How should I live my life?

Ida neither gives direct answers nor starts reflecting loudly on her life with pathos. Charming Agata Trzebuchowska portrays very adeptly all the states of mind and the emotional stress of her character. Temptations and options are so close. She gives up taking her vows as a fully professed nun at the very last minute for she feels not ready to dedicate herself to God. In the end she maybe chooses Jesus, but it is just suggested and those of the viewers who are not religiously minded would attribute another implication. Or perhaps to Pawlikowski, Christianity or Judaism, the convent or a life in the world, are not areal alternatives.

There are backstories in the movie, significant and innovative to Polish film.

Aunt Wanda proves to have been an active member of the Resistance and a Communist, and after the war was a state prosecutor dubbed Bloody Wanda due to the large number of death penalties she demanded for the ‘enemies of the state’. (I have to observe that as a matter of fact the English subtitles withhold some of this information for no clear reasons. The aunt’s nickname, for example, is translated as ‘Red Wanda’ rather than ‘Bloody Wanda’. At the funeral, several lines of a party functionary and a law enforcement officer are missing, where he stresses how committed Wand was to the Party and to the cause of eliminating the ‘enemies of the people’. Indeed, these details, meaning so much to eastern European audiences with vivid recollections of the events under totalitarianism, are perhaps difficult to understand as regards western audiences or would cause raised eyebrows among leftist intellectuals.) In the 1960s, Wanda is a judge, who enjoying immunity is drink-driving her Wartburg. Once in a road accident her car ends up wedged between trees. Asked by a police officer, she says that she has been drinking ever since she was 12.

Single and bossy Wanda is an interesting character, tremendously played as she is by Agata Kulesza. To her, the journey with her niece is also a time for questions and key giveaways. In wartime, engrossed in her political activities, she did not take care of her sister’s family, leaving them to villagers. After the war she shows no interest in the sole survivor, her little niece, and the girl grows up in a convent. All this, undoubtedly, weighs heavily on Wanda’s mind, though she never allows herself to display her emotions.

Wanda succeeds in wringing a confession from the villagers, who live in their family house, that they killed the Jewish family hiding in the woods to take their property. Psychologically, it presses more heavily on ‘iron’ Wanda. So, suicide comes as the logical end of a life devoted to a seemingly just cause, which has been just hollow words.

Broaching the issue of Polish anti-Semitism — in wartime too — is a brave move by Pawel Pawlikowski and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz. This topic is deeply taboo, or concealed behind what has been perpetrated by the forces that have occupied Poland. Pawlikowski is not seeking to sensationalize; rather, he delves deep into this drama of delusions and downfalls of greed and pettiness, which have had serious and fatal implications.

The talk, which he brings forward, is serious stuff, and the film material he offers to viewers for contemplation has without any doubt been made skillfully and with inspiration.

It is a black-and-white film which helps re-create more authentically the 1960s in Poland. Every effort has been made to successfully provide elaborate sets, streets, cars, costumes and props, convincingly showing both life back then and the manner in which humans interacted with each other. Pawlikowski has apparently drawn on the Polish film noir tradition of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, or on city stories such as Halina Bielinska’s 1965 Alone in the City. Many references to film noir are discernible. All this makes Ida an intellectual treat to watch for avid cinemagoers. In addition to the above, I’d mention that the film was shot in the classic 4:3 (1.37:1) aspect ratio, which is a rarity these days but suits that period best.

Pawel Pawlikowski was 14 when his family left Poland in the early 1970s to live in Germany and Italy, before moving to the UK when he was 20. Pawlikowski studied in London and at Oxford before he started making movies, mostly documentaries full of irony and at times, of lyricism. His feature films Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) won him a number of international awards. Ida has also received top prizes. To me, it is Pawlikowski’s best movie to date. Still, he hasn’t stopped working hard.

Edited by Carmen Gray