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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.