Spare to a fault, the new Polish drama Ida leaves so much open to interpretation that it becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, the things you see in it are likely to reflect what you knew about the Holocaust — or thought you knew — before you ever entered the theatre.
Shout-Out to My Mishpokhe: Some films may well be about The Holocaust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good for the Jews.” (JLH: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner
Lodz 1962: “Anna” (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage novice in a Polish Convent, is about to take her vows when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that she visit her “Aunt Wanda” (Agata Kulesza), someone whose existence had been hidden from her until that moment. As soon as they do meet, Wanda immediately informs Anna that her real name is Ida and–surprise, surprise–she was born Jewish.
Leaving the theatre, my husband Richard and I agreed that the austere back & white photography (by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) was exquisite, and Agata Trzebuchowska (making her screen debut) had a face made for the camera.
But after that our discussion became quite heated, and we started to wonder if we had actually seen the same film…?
The film I saw was spare to a fault, with way too much left open to interpretation. The Mother Superior, for example, periodically gives Anna/Ida long, stern looks that seem fraught with significance, but she barely has a single line of dialogue beyond telling Anna/Ida–in the film’s opening act–that she must visit her Aunt before taking her vows.
It turns out that Aunt Wanda is a fairly important person; some might even call her “notorious.” Therefore, since the Mother Superior has always known who Anna/Ida’s Aunt Wanda is, she has known for a very long time that Anna/Ida was born Jewish. But beyond that, we have no clue to what the Mother Superior is thinking.
Why does the Mother Superior insist that Anna/Ida must meet Aunt Wanda before she takes her vows? Maybe she wants Anna/Ida to know who she “really is” before she allows this very young woman to make such a serious commitment? Or maybe she thinks that “Jewish Blood” might eventually pollute her otherwise pristine convent? Who knows? The screenplay tells us nothing beyond the fact that she is obviously watching Anna/Ida’s behavior–both before and after her visit to Wanda–with an extra measure of critical attention.
The lack of narrative detail is especially disappointing because the screenplay was co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski (who–to date–has been a marginally successful filmmaker) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who is already a very successful British playwright).
Even though it is only 80 minutes long, Ida feels much longer. In fact, with its long, wordless, static–albeit beautifully composed–shots, it often felt interminable to me. The first time I saw it (at a critics screening at the Film Forum on 4/25/14), I was desperate to flee the theatre as soon as the credits began to roll, although I forced myself to stay seated until the bitter end just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. And then I went back to the Film Forum with my husband Richard (on 5/3/14) to see it a second time start to finish, resulting in even more frustration.
I don’t know this for a fact, but my gut tells me that Lenkiewicz’s dramatic skills were tightly constrained by Pawlikowski’s visual aesthetic. The result is a film that is so obsessed with fetishizing the face of a beautiful young woman that it ultimately loses its way in the forest (and yes, I do mean that literally as well as metaphorically).
© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (5/6/14)
Top Photo: “Wanda” (Agata Kulesza) and “Ida” (Agata Trzebuchowska) are in Wanda’s apartment. Since Ida has had no knowledge of her parents, she is seeing photos of them for the very first time.
Bottom Photo: Wanda faces off against a steely police officer who has no idea who she is. Why does he arrest her? Does he really think she was driving drunk and needs to be incarcerated for her own protection so she can “sleep it off”…? Or does he arrest her to teach “the Jew” a lesson–to bully her and intimidate her and force her to stop asking questions about the fate of Ida’s parents…?
The screenplay gives us no answers. We are left to draw our own conclusions. But suffice it to say Wanda wins. As soon as they learn who she is, Wanda is released and the police officer–bowing and scraping–obsequiously begs her forgiveness.
Now that she has decided to look for her family’s remains, after shirking the burden for some 20 years, Wanda will not be stopped… And that is how Ida winds up–inevitably–in the heart of that dark Polish forest…
Photo Credits: Sylwester Kazmierczak and Liliana Milewska
May 24th Addendum: My fundamental problem with Ida is that the screenplay is so deliberately spare that the film becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, I think the less you know about the Holocaust, the more likely you will be to misinterpret what little bits of information are actually provided in the film. In other words, while everyone is certainly free to see whatever they see in it (of course), the things you see in it are likely to reflect what you knew — or thought you knew — before you entered the theatre.
One Example: I participated in a contentious thread on IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) in which a woman I assume to be Catholic was arguing that “Ida believes in Jesus and wants to be a nun.” For this woman, if Anna/Ida wants to be Catholic and she doesn’t want to be Jewish, then that’s the end to it. If she has absolutely no interest in Judaism — never bothering to ask Aunt Wanda or anyone else about what it might mean to be Jewish — then that’s fine. Anna/Ida doesn’t think she’s Jewish, so she’s not Jewish. Full stop.
My Response: For most Jews, many Poles, and all Nazis, Judaism is more than a statement of religious belief. Anna/Ida was a baby when the Priest brought her to the convent. So while the lady on IMDb clearly thinks Anna has chosen to be “a practicing Roman Catholic,” some might say that was simply the way Ida was raised.
“She believes in Jesus so she wants to be a nun,” repeats the lady on IMDb. But do we really know this? Perhaps in her brief time away from the convent, Anna/Ida has learned that the world is a rather frightening place. So maybe she has decided to return to the convent because the convent is, after all, the only “home” and the only “family” this very young woman has ever known…
Some will say Pawlikowski leaves these questions to the audience, but I think that’s a cop out. Me, I don’t think Pawlikowski has given sufficient thought to “the Jewish Question.” I think he’s really interested in creating beautiful images of Poland before the thaw, but he has adroitly used the Holocaust to add “gravitas” to an otherwise thin aesthetic exercise.
A Cynical Question: Would Ida have all this buzz now if it had just been about a beautiful teenage nun who has a brief affair with a handsome jazz musician before taking her final vows?
Before you answer that question, I think you should take another look at exactly what Ricky Gervais had Kate Winslet say in the infamous episode of Extras which appeared just before Winslet did, in fact, win an Oscar for her role in The Reader.
Ranting about Ida now reminds me of my earlier rants about The Pianist and The Reader. To be blunt, some films may well be about The Holocaust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good for the Jews.”
Thanks for this! After 70 years I think Christians and Christian Europeans still have glossed over the depths of their immediate ancestors’ evil. So called artistic creations like this just don’t do it.
Ethel: My apologies for not posting sooner. Somehow this was buried in the inbox. Comments most appreciated, Jan
Hello, I stumbled upon your comment on IMDb. I wholeheartedly agree that this film requires a lot of insight into the historical context of that particular time in Poland. One could elaborate for hours on many small details in this movie, which are unnoticable for anyone having not enough insight into the context. To illustrate it, 2 cases for example:
Firstly: “Or does he arrest her to teach “the Jew” a lesson–to bully her and intimidate her and force her to stop asking questions about the fate of Ida’s parents…?” – such assumption is invalid.
As soon as the war ended most remnants of the Jewish community in Poland changed their names to Polish-sounding ones. After the demise of multiethnic pre-war Poland the ruthless Soviet occupant began enforcing a new, monoethnic state, so the reasoning behind the name changes was fear of new persecution. For the sake of personal peace they had to blend in the new post-war society. Same was the case with remnants of other ethnic minorities. No one openly Jewish or, say, Ukrainian would be able to have a career in the Party. Same was the case in other newly monoethnic communist states in the region.
On this basis it was impossible for the policeman to have any clue about Wanda’s descent. You could induce it from the reactions by other people when Wanda was seeking the father of the Polish family. They were clearly suprised that she asked about anything related to Jews inhabiting the area before the war. The Jewish question was simply non-existent for ordinaray Poles at that time since most Jews either were killed/fled during the war, or fled/assimilated afterwards.
Secondly, as soon as the Soviet “liberation” took in many surviving ethnic Jews, including Wanda, joined the new regime and made huge careers. This was quite common at the time, the regime welcomed anyone who pledged allegiance, regardless of social class. By saying she attributed to sending “enemies of the nation” to death she meant Home Army partisans, part of whom still rebelled against the communist state and its bloody rule at that time. They were dealt with under such accusations in the first years of communist rule. So basically this makes her a communist criminal, regardless of her own attitude (idealistic/opportunistic) towards her job. This gives another shade to Wanda’s tragic story.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 there was a purge (called “The thaw”) in the Worker’s Party (PZPR) and the most prominent of those responsible for mass death rows were stripped of their posts (not trialed though). This was regardless of descent (all joined the Party as Poles). This was yet another propaganda campaign, so many less prominent activists regained their posts. Wanda was just out of her luck on this one.
I believe that the scene at the police station was only supposed to comment on the corruption of the communist state in which Wanda took part. Wanda, even though she fell from grace, still had strong connections in the Party. At that time anyone who had sufficient connections would be set free by the police just after making a proper phone call, regardless of the commited act. Notice the servility of the policeman as soon as he finds out that Wanda is a big shot.
Again, a blatantly simple fact should be reminded: ie. before the WWII no one would kill Jews in Poland since for centuries they have constituted one of many other ethnic groups of the multinational state (among Poles, Ruthenians, Germans, Muslim Tatars, Armenians etc) who managed to coexist peacefully. It’s undeniable that some sad events really took place during the war, and there were Polish people who took part. Still the occupation was the root of all evil. The quantity of these and reasons behind them are incomparable with German occupant’s bestiality.
Personally, as a Pole, it saddens met that for some it’s so easy to put the Polish nation in the role of the perpetrator (“he killed them because he wanted the land” guy on IMDb discussion), while milions of Poles were slaughtered as well, some in penalty for hiding the Jews. For example just several days ago I learned from my Dad about his friend who was subjected to German medical experiments. It’s been almost 70 years now, but even nowadays stories related to events of WWII, Poles and Jews unearth here in Poland. For sure the awareness is much bigger than in the times depicted in the movie, and many people seek the truth – this movie being a prime example.
Just my 5 cents to contribute to mutual understanding 🙂 I still agree with your insight for the most part.
Anyway, to complete this lenghty post, the movie is beautifully made, I really enjoyed the non-standard framing (know any other directors/cinematographers who execute such shots?) and the jazzy feel which contrasted with the convent’s ascetic silence and the tragic events which Wanda and Ida were dealing with.
Greetings from Poland.
Dear Marcin: I appreciate your thoughtful comments and I apologize for the posting delay. (I was away & had limited computer resources.) However, if you truly believe that “the [Nazi] occupation was the root of all [anti-Semitic] evil [in Poland],” then we are simply never going to agree.
This is not to tar all Poles with one brush or deny the many Poles who acted with incredibly bravery in horrific circumstances, but “coexistence” was never quite so “peaceful” either before, during, or after WWII. Reactions in Poland to books like “Neighbors” and films like “Aftermath” (to name just two fairly recent examples), should alert you to the fact that burying the past is no solution.
In the case of “Ida,” I have been frankly dismayed by the vituperous outpourings on IMDb. People HATE Wanda!!! Perhaps you might want to ask yourself how — and why — the filmmakers engineering that outcome…?
Greetings from Brooklyn,
Of course, no tragic events between Poles and Jews which happened in the past should be buried. Jews were just one of many classes of pre-war Polish society. It wasn’t all rosy, but so wasn’t peasant-nobility relations, or Polish-Ruthenian relations. Still, during _most_ of the time Polish-Jewish coexistence was quite peaceful compared to what was happening in Western Europe. In the end it was Poland and other Central-European countries (like Hungary and Czech) who welcomed Jews and became their home for several centuries after the numerous prosecutions and exiles from Western European countries.
I believe that putting any _undeniably_unjustifiable_incidents_ on par with industrialized genocide (which tends to become a trend with books like “Neighbors” and films like “Aftermath”) is highly inappropriate. Germans are somewhat “lucky” to have Nazis, who currently take all the blame (as if Nazis were a tribe descent from outer space having nothing in common with the German nation), whereas Polish have to deal with all the blame themselves, like as if they were too clumsy to create their own blood-thirsty totalitarian regime. Some of us in Poland feel that currently the history is being rewitten and the Polish nation is being put in the role of perpetrators along the Nazis/Germans/German Nazis/whateverthename. They say that victors write down history and in this respect the Polish nation are total losers, I can give you that. 🙂
Anyways, I respect your point of view.
Regarding Wanda, I don’t see why IMDb people would hate her. I believe she’s a tragic character, and I didn’t feel that the filmmakers would engeneer her into a downright evil person. She was corrupt in contrast to Ida, but that was comprehensible if one considered her difficult past.
I think she had no choice but to adapt to difficult post WWII reality. It was a very turbulent time, not only for her, but also for many other people in Poland and in other Eastern block countries. I didn’t get a negative vibe regarding that character whatsoever, just grief and compassion. I believe that her wrongdoings are a result of war and it’s aftermath, and one has to delve into post-war Poland’s reality to comprehend this. In the end she helped Ida learn truth, and revealed to be tormented by her painful past (which eventually lead to her suicide), so she proved to be a really humane character.
I really love how the movie is so ambiguous about the characters and the matters in which they are entwined. It’s so unlike Hollywood cinema, which is straighwfroward most of the time, and in contrast very common in our Polish (and maybe more widely European) tradition of filmmaking. As a result, this sort of discussion could emerge. 🙂 Otherwise, having ordinary “flat” characters with simple background, we could only debate the plot, which isn’t so unique as you noticed yourself. It’s the characters and their motives – which stem from their past – which in turn requires some historical and cultural insight that make this movie special. Not an easy movie, though a very rewarding one once the audience delve into the matter.
Many thanks, Marcin.
I take your point that any film that can engender this level of debate has earned its stripes (so to speak). I may not agree with you (& others with whom I have engaged on IMDb), but I have certainly learned a great deal from all of you.
One specific question: Why do YOU think a photo of Irena Sendler appears in Wanda’s collection of family photos…? I must say that since I already knew a fair amount about Irena Sendler when I went in to see IDA, I found the photo of her–a very famous photo–quite jarring.
Also, maybe you will consider telling us a bit more about yourself? It is often useful to know how someone comes to one’s own unique POV. Since this is my blog, you already know a great deal about me 😉
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