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Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski: Ida leaves the convent

Ida is a film by the Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski, who now works in the UK. Pawlikowski’s quiet, slow-paced film, beautifully shot in monochrome, sets its story against the background of the darkest days in the recent history of his country.

There are two central characters, and at first we don’t really know who they are. In Poland in 1961, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun preparing to take her final vows in the convent where she was left as an orphan baby in 1945 by persons unknown. Before Ida makes her irrevocable decision the Mother Superior insists that she visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who turns out to be an abrasive, chain-smoking magistrate with a decided taste for alcohol and men.

While Wanda soon informs Anna that she is Jewish, born Ida Lebenstein, we begin to piece together something of Wanda’s background (her first words on meeting Anna are, ‘They didn’t tell you who I am – and what I do?’). In the aftermath of war and revolution, she was a Stalinist state prosecutor, and admits to having sent ‘enemies of the people’ to their death for the good of the revolution.

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Ida: Wanda and Anna embark on a road trip in search of the truth

Wanda proposes to Anna that they embark on a road trip together to discover what became of her parents during the war. As they get closer to the truth it becomes clear that, for her own reasons, Wanda herself has been dreading what they may find.

In many ways Wanda is the most interesting character in the film. Whilst Agata Trzebuchowska brings an intense stillness to her role and her face is beautifully photographed by Ryszard Lenczewski, Trzebuchowska’s performance rarely allows us to penetrate further than her watchful stare. But Agata Kulesza’s performance as Wanda is mesmerising.  As she questions the people who knew Ida’s parents in the war about their knowledge of the family’s destruction, she is both Stalinist interrogator and Jewish avenger. She raps on their doors with the force of one who has known no restraint on her authority.

Agata Kulesza as Wanda

Ida: Agata Kulesza as Wanda

But Wanda is a woman who has her own double burden of guilt to bear – the twin burdens of  Poland’s 20th century history you might say. In wartime, with the best intentions, she made a decision that had terrible personal consequences, while in communist postwar Poland, as ‘Red Wanda’, she destroyed others as a leading agent of the Stalinist regime. By 1961, beneath a tough veneer of bitterness and contempt she survives, helped by booze, sexual hunger,  and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.

The review of Ida in New Yorker magazine summarized in one stark paragraph the context against which this film’s story unfolds:

Between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost a fifth of its population, including three million Jews. In the two years after the war, Communists took over the government under the eyes of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Many Poles who were prominent in resisting the Nazis were accused of preposterous crimes; the independent-minded were shot or hanged. In the movie, none of this is stated, but all of it is built, so to speak, into the atmosphere: the country feels dead, the population sparse, the mood of ordinary conversations constrained by the sure knowledge that many who survived have committed acts of betrayal or indulged willful ignorance.

Ida is but one story from millions, then. While the Nazi occupation led to the murder of 3 million Polish Jews, and the killing of 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians, the number of of Stalinist victims following the Soviet invasion of Poland is estimated at 1.8 million, including the 21,000 Polish officers killed by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in the Katyn Forest. The most violent period of communist rule lasted until the death of Joseph Stalin in1953. During this time, the Polish communist regime led by President Boleslaw Bierut imprisoned or executed soldiers of the non-communist Home Army resistance, Catholic priests and communists who challenged the official line after show trials which even reached as far as Wladyslaw Gomulka, vice-president in the first post-war government.

In her book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Ann Applebaum notes the wide ranging nature of the repression, which embraced the Polish Women’s League, a group of volunteers set up to feed refugees in train stations; the Warsaw YMCA (closed down because of its large collection of jazz records which were smashed with hammers); pub owners, tobacco sellers, and barbers who ‘due to their regular contacts with the public were the primary disseminators of fascist propaganda’ and the Polish Boy Scouts (targeted because they had joined the Home Army during World War II).

Destroying Catholic church groups was regarded as a high priority and in 1950 Caritas, the Catholic charity, which operated orphanages and soup kitchens, was targeted for having connections to ‘aristocrats’ and Nazi sympathizers. 1950 was the year of the ‘war against religion’, in which a total of 123 Roman Catholic priests were jailed by the Department 5 of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland. Since the late 1940s, the department, led by interrogator Julia Brystiger, had specialized in the persecution of Polish religious figures.  Brystiger personally directed the operation to arrest and detain the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.

In a biography that echoes the story of Ida – but inverts it – interrogator Brystygier had been born to a Jewish family. Nicknamed ‘Bloody Luna’ by her victims, Brystygier left the Ministry of Public Security in 1956.  In 1975, at the age of 73, she converted to Catholicism. She died the same year.

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 Anna dances with the saxophonist Lis

On the road, Anna – ‘the little saint’ in Wanda’s estimation – is exposed to worldly wickedness by her aunt, happy to describe herself as a ‘slut’ and far from shy about her appetite for booze, cigarettes and men. A chance meeting with hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) offers temptation for Anna, who finds herself attracted to the handsome young man who introduces her to Coltrane’s ‘Naima’.

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Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna

If you go to the cinema to see Ida, before the film begins you will see a BBFC alert that constitutes a spoiler, warning of ‘ a suicide attempt’. It’s annoying because you can’t help but be affected by it as the narrative unfolds: who will it be? The last act of Pawlikowski’s film is concerned with the impact on the two women of what they learn at the end of their quest.  Ultimately, for both Wanda and Anna, it becomes a question of faith.  For Wanda, the faith she once had in the righteous justice she meted out for the Party has been shattered already, but what she learns in a forest piles even more guilt upon her shoulders.

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Moment of truth in the forest

Anna’s choice in some respects seems more puzzling. After sampling the temptations of sex, music, cigarettes and alcohol, she retreats from the wilderness she has found in her history and the society around her, reinforced in her faith.

Pawlikowski’s film looks as if it was made when it was set, and is deeply evocative of time and place. Beautifully photographed in monochrome by Ryszard Lenczewski and framed in classic 4×3 ratio, it echoes Polish films of the 1950s such as Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (indeed, there is a scene in the characters walk between white sheets hanging from a washing line that reminded me of the famous final scene in Wajda’s film). With its measured pace and slow cutting, you can also sense the influence of European directors of the sixties and early seventies such as Robert Bresson and François Truffaut.

The film’s monochrome cinematography and unusual framing which repeatedly places its characters at the bottom of the screen generates a powerful sense of characters isolated in a harsh, unyielding landscape, ravaged by war and haunted by unwanted memories. The weight of history bears down, forcing a coming to terms with the past and truth.


4 thoughts on “Ida: faith and politics

  1. Hello Gerry. It’s odd writing to you after being an avid reader of your work for nigh on 4 years (I was drifting like a wisp on the wind after yet another Stalker rewatching and collided with one of your articles since when….kindredness took on its multi-armed form) but there comes a time when I just have to say how much pleasure your pieces give me. It’s immense, truly so, and I even curb my highly opinionated dislike of most of the Americana that passes for music that you so obviously enjoy. Being a person who totally avoids the shellshock of the modern media and prefers no form of news intake it’s a rare joy reading your informed work. In this piece the four paragraphs from “Ida is but one story from millions, then” is the embodiment of the kind of richness that I so enjoy and anticipate with relish. I’ve also loved and been introduced to books that were just a stone’s throw from my heart which I knew nothing about…Edgelands, Rings of Saturn, but there is so much more. So it was with an almost inner knowledge that I visited LIverpool for the first time recently (the plural purposes of seeing The Bluecoat, walk the Leeds-Liverpool but not quite your Aintree – Downholland bit, we did Crosby To Lydiate, and Another Place….all of which were really brilliant, the surprise being the art and decidedly Hour Glass Sanatorium aspect of the Royal School for the Blind exhibition).

    The reason I’ve broken my silence is that although I watch films constantly I also lament the lack of work in the last 20 years that make a serious impact in the sense that there’s a sudden shift of intensity onto another level and though I’d not say Ida breaks new ground in this respect it is a truly brilliant film. I knew you’d write up about it. Wanda’s character is mesmerizing, not to say multi-dimensional, haunting, and so inwardly portrayed. But if landscape can make up for the lack of dialogue or action then this is one massive triumph. Spellbinding. I like your Bresson, Truffaut comparisons and would also say parts of Viridiana and Mother Joan of the Angels are in there too. But I’m burbling now.

    A heartfelt thanks.

    Doj in Brighton

    1. Well, Doj, I’m overwhelmed. To get a response like yours to what began more as a way of holding onto memories than a means of public communication is a great pleasure. Of course by now, after nearly six years of writing I do realise there are a few people out there reading this stuff, but a response like yours makes it all worthwhile. I’m glad you enjoyed your time in and around Liverpool. I must admit I haven’t been to the Old Blind School exhibition, and I should – quite apart from the Biennial artworks, I’d like to see inside the building again – once a familiar stamping ground as the Trade Union & Unemployed Centre (funded by Merseyside County Council until its abolition by Margaret Thatcher – different times!) it housed a bar haunted by activists of all shades, the Picket music venue and a creche which our daughter attended. Most of all though I’d like to see if a mural on the first floor staircase, painted by Mick Jones (son of Jack Jones the trade union leader) depicting scenes from Liverpool’s radical history is still there (see I’ve got ten days left, and now that you’ve alerted me I will go. Your mention of The Hour Glass Sanatorium reminded me for the first time in decades of another film by Wojciech Has that was just as strange – The Saragossa Manuscript, a kaleidoscopic series of stories within stories that left you feeling your brain was about to explode. Again, thanks.

  2. Having just bought and watch ‘Ida’ I have really appreciated your blog on the film. The cinematography was amazing. It is a film I shall return to again but will reread your analysis before I do so to gain more understanding of the politics of the time. Thanks Jean

    1. Thank you very much, Jean; I’m pleased that my little write-up enhanced your enjoyment of a great film – one of the very best of 2014.

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