Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski had wanted to make a film about Helena Wolinska-Brus for some time, but never managed to come up with the right approach. She was a military prosecutor in Poland after World War II and partly responsible for the executions of many Poles who had belonged to the Home Army and fought for their country against the Nazis, only to fall out of favor with the Stalinists who took control after the war. She was later fired and left her country for Britain where she found a new career as a professor of economics at Oxford University.
Post-communist Poland wanted her extradited for her crimes, but it never happened; she died in 2008. A fascinating, complex story… and Pawlikowski eventually found a way to tell it in this movie.
In 1960s Poland, young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun. Before her vows can be taken, she has to visit her family. In this case, that means her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who used to be a judge and a prosecutor. These days, alcohol seems to be her main interest in life, but aunt Wanda has a startling surprise. She tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, she is Jewish and her parents were murdered during the war. No one knows where they are buried, although Wanda knows who might have a clue. Anna is shocked, but wants to find the burial site. The two of them head out into the Polish countryside and its dark history…
The only film by the director that I had seen before Ida was the somewhat tedious thriller The Woman in the Fifth (2012), so this was a bit of a surprise. Joanna Kulig, one of the actors from that film, shows up here as a jazz singer. That may seem unremarkable, but part of Ida’s appeal is its portrayal of 1960s Poland and what kind of country it was at that time. There was indeed a more relaxed attitude from the authorities after the death of Stalin, which is illustrated by the scenes in jazz clubs. It’s a sharp contrast to everything else in the film though, and perhaps in Polish society as a whole at the time, because the war and the oppression of first Nazis and then Communists was only a few years away (in the latter case still in place obviously, but to a lesser degree).
The script (by the director and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) depicts haunting memories, personal in the case of Wanda who is tormented by her past as a judge who sentenced war heroes to death because they weren’t sufficiently Stalinist, and Anna who may not have memories of her parents but finds the journey into her past and meeting with people who are very different from those at the convent very enlightening. The film also addresses a collective Polish guilt for how Jews were treated on their soil, as well as connecting two different eras in the country’s history. It hasn’t gone down without controversy. Some Poles have resisted Pawlikowski’s depiction of fellow countrymen as collaborators… but to me it sounds too much like the usual nationalist refusal to take responsibility for the full picture of a nation’s history.
We learn very little about the characters, but Kulesza delivers a gripping performance. The sadness and crushing weight of modern Poland’s history infuses every shot, as arranged by cinematographer Lukasz Zal who creates vast spaces above pitiable humans.
Ida 2013-Poland-Denmark-Britain. 80 min. B/W. Produced by Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Screenplay: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Cinematography: Ryszard Lenczewski, Lukasz Zal. Cast: Agata Trzebuchowska (Anna/Ida Lebenstein), Agata Kulesza (Wanda Gruz), Dawid Ogrodnik (Lis), Joanna Kulig, Adam Szyszkowski, Jerzy Trela.
Trivia: Lenczewski started out as director of cinematography, but was later replaced by Zal.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. BAFTA: Best Film not in the English Language. European Film Awards: Best Film, Director, Screenwriter, Cinematographer.
Last word: “‘Ida’ is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history that wouldnʼt feel like a historical film – a film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer. I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in ‘Ida’ is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no ax to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood…” (Pawlikowski, Indiewire)