Paweł Pawlikowski (Director), Ida (Poland, 2013). Film.
Review by Professor Sue Vice, University of Sheffield, January 2016
When Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) won the Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2015, its appearing in the public eye in this way provoked a series of debates about the implications of its plot for recent Polish history. While some viewers took the film to be a slur against the behaviour of Polish people during the Holocaust years, others in turn complained that it implied a specifically Jewish responsibility for communist-era persecutions. Ida is fiction, with a screenplay written by Pawlikowski and the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and these controversies took an over-literal view of this nuanced and ambiguous film. However, they are also a testament to the powerful balance it achieves between the personal and the political.
The very title of the film emphasizes such a combination. Ida is called thus for the birth-name of its protagonist, the novice nun Anna, played by the non-professional actor Agata Trzebuchowska, on whom it opens in a Polish convent in the early 1960s. Anna is summoned to meet her aunt, Wanda Gruz, her only living relative, in the last few days before she takes her vows. The Mother Superior at her convent seems to acknowledge the significance of this summons in insisting that the reluctant Anna must accept the invitation, adding that she should ‘stay as long as necessary’. Anna’s visit to Wanda does indeed open up to her another world and a different kind of temporality. History intrudes into the apparently timeless spiritual realm of her life so far. Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who seems both embittered and fragile, lives in the city, in a stylish apartment where she drinks hard, smokes, listens to Mozart and where she is visited by lovers. She explains her own past to Anna, as a communist state prosecutor who oversaw big public trials from which people were sent to their deaths, during which time she was known as ‘Red Wanda’. That has all ‘gone with the wind’, as Wanda puts it, and now, for reasons at which the spectator can only speculate, she is a disenchanted minor judge at a local court.
Yet it is the events of the war in occupied Poland as much as its communist aftermath that are brought out into the open by Wanda’s meeting with Anna. ‘So you are a Jewish nun’, she tells her niece, outlining Anna’s ancestry as the daughter of Haim and Róża Lebenstein, the parents who named her ‘Ida’. Wanda shows her niece some family photographs, claiming never to have liked the man who married her beloved younger sister, since it was ‘because of him that she ended up in that hole’. Later, both Anna and the spectator learn that this is no metaphorical turn of phrase, but a literal description of the family’s horrifying fate. Anna sees a little boy in the photographs, and asks if she had a brother. Wanda denies this, telling her niece she was an only child, but later we learn that the boy in the picture was her own son, left with Róża so that Wanda could join the resistance. ‘For God knows what’, as Wanda bitterly remarks, offering an insight into the impossibilities of life during an era in which, as Jan Kott puts it in his foreword to the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s short stories about imprisonment in Auschwitz, ‘history was let off the leash’.
In Ida, these photographs seem to be the only surviving traces of the Lebensteins. But Anna’s entry into her aunt’s life prompts Wanda to return to her birthplace in the countryside, in sequences where the Polish winter landscape is filmed in bleakly beautiful, still compositions, to uncover other such traces. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, Wanda sees her sister living on in Anna, to whom she says, with a rare smile, ‘You’re a redhead too, right?’ She tells her niece that Róża had an unconventional, artistic nature, and made stained-glass windows which she put in the cowshed for the animals’ sake. We see Anna’s face, when she finds one of these stained-glass panes at the former family home, looking up at it amid the cows, her face illuminated by its light. It seems fitting that these links to the past, Anna’s auburn hair and the stained-glass ornament, both invoke colours that cannot be distinguished within the film’s austerely black-and-white look, one that is a stylistic homage to Polish and Czech New Wave films of the early 1960s.
However, the traces of the past that are the hardest for Wanda and Anna to cope with are the human ones. In the present, the Lebensteins’ home has been taken over by the son of the farmer, Szymon Skiba, who hid them in the nearby forest during the war. Yet this act of self-endangering shelter turned into murder, and Skiba’s son (Adam Szyszkowski) tells the two women that he killed Haim, Róża and the little boy whose name we never learn. He promises to show them where the family is buried, if they promise to let him keep the house and stay away from his own young family. In a scene of restrained yet almost unbearable ‘spiritual horror’, as David Thomson puts it, Skiba digs up the bones of the Lebensteins, then crouches silently at the bottom of the pit, head bowed as if in penance, while Wanda and Anna wrap these remains in blankets and cradle them in their arms. Later it is Wanda who Anna cradles, as she weeps over her lost baby son, lamenting that, ‘I hardly knew him’.
The film’s visual and dramatic restraint about these terrible events means that the responses of the two women are conveyed by their actions rather than any kind of explicit reflection or utterance. The direction of her glance is enough to reveal the heavy weight of history for Wanda, who looks at things in the present without seeing them. After the pressures of the past overwhelm Wanda and she commits suicide, Anna too seems to be torn, between her future as a nun and the present-day world. She sheds her novice’s habit and lives in her aunt’s apartment, dressing and drinking as Wanda did, even accepting the advances of Lis, the young saxophonist whom she and her aunt had encountered on their road-trip and whose rendition of John Coltrane’s eminently secular love-song ‘Naima’ had drawn Anna’s attention. Yet the film’s final sequence is an ambiguous conclusion. We see Anna leave the sleeping Lis in Wanda’s apartment, dress once more in her habit and go back to the convent. The final shot is a long-drawn-out one, taken with an unsteady, hand-held camera. This gives the impression of a hectic act of flight on Anna’s part, as if she is tempted by yet cannot bear what the secular world has to offer.
The film is named for Ida, rather than Anna, making it the story of the little girl who was not killed by the Polish rescuer, but left instead with the local priest. But it is also about Wanda, whose life was equally taken over by historical events, both women’s stories making up part of the ‘New Poland’. Pawlikowski has described in interviews the various inspirations for the film, which included his hearing about a Polish priest who belatedly discovered his Jewish origins, and his own friendship in Britain with Helena Wolińska–Brus, of whom he was later surprised to learn that she had been a ruthless Stalinist prosecutor in post-war Poland. The most compelling intertext, however, is that of Paweł Łoziński’s documentary My Birthplace (1992), his remarkable film about the writer Henryk Grynberg’s real-life return to the Polish village of his birth. Grynberg uncovers there details about the wartime murder of his father, committed in order to steal his cows, and the betrayal by local peasants of his little brother to the Germans, because rescuing him would have been too dangerous. Pawlikowski’s Ida is an aesthetic construct based on such scenarios, in a work that is both troublingly beautiful and existentially difficult to watch.