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How the Director of ‘Ida’ Turned Polish History Into Compelling Drama

How the Director of 'Ida' Turned Polish History Into Compelling Drama

Although its motivating narrative element involves a reconciliation with souls lost in the Holocaust, one of the most appealing aspects of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is that it never feels narrowed or overwhelmed by so specific or loaded a historical impulse. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t embrace a historical moment. Indeed, the film is an effort to recapture a time and place – Warsaw, 1962 – that the director can only claim first-hand through childhood memories.

The film’s austere yet richly textured black-and-white recalls the snapshots from the Pawlikowski’s own family photo album, although a more cinematic reference would be Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light,” also reflected in a shared theme in which religious faith is tested against a more existentialist worldview. Born in 1957, the filmmaker would have been 5 when the events in “Ida” transpire, but in conversation at the Sundance Film Festival this January he explained how the script, co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, resonates closely with his own story.

The premise of “Ida” brings together two woman who, on the surface, could not be more different. Wanda (Agata Kulesza, best-known for her work on the Polish stage) is a dissolute judge and former prosecutor whose status has fallen with the decline of Stalinism. The camera catches her at an expressionistic tilt as she stumbles drunkenly through one-night stands with an attitude of stoic self-negation. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, who previously had not appeared on film), a novice nun who has turned 18 and is about to take her vows, leaves the convent where she was raised as an orphan to meet Wanda, her aunt, who breaks the news to her innocent niece that her real name is Ida, that she is a Jew and that her parents were killed during World War II. From there, they begin a journey. Ostensibly, it is to find the place where the bodies have been buried, and cast an eye on the culpable parties, but the odyssey also provides the occasion for the women to look for themselves in the mirror of each others’ psyches as Poland at last began to loosen its collar with the dawn of the 1960s.

“It was the period when many things became a little bit more possible after the death of Stalin,” says Pawlikowski, who left Warsaw behind as a teenager and was, until recently, a resident of England, where he launched his career as an unconventional documentarian for the BBC. “By 1962, the heroic period of building communist Poland was over, heroic meaning also murderous, and suddenly a little bit of air was let in and communism became a little bit more shabby and pragmatic. It was called the ‘period of normalization.’ We were building a new society.” Citing the influence of Western culture such as jazz, he added, “Poland was the most liberal society in the Eastern Bloc at the time. It was known as the most jolly barrack in the communist camp. There were cool attitudes, a lot of hipster activity and postures which was kind of sweet at the time.”

Although Pawlikowski’s ballerina mother was Catholic, his father, a doctor, was Jewish. “He never publicized that fact,” the director said. “It wasn’t a big deal but obviously he was keeping it to himself. My father’s side of the family was mysteriously absent.” Figuring out the truth set the filmmaker on a path to asking more questions. “I discovered that my grandmother on his side died in Auschwitz,” he said. “I wanted to ask, what does it mean to be Catholic, to be Christian.”

Ida’s flirtation with a charming American jazz saxophonist she meets one night opens up another facet of the film. “Naima,” one of John Coltrane’s most heart-achingly lyrical ballads, sets the tone – a strange and compelling new language for the girl, suggesting that the worldliness of the jazz club offers its own kind of spiritual transcendence. The song opens up one of the kinds of windows that the film presents to each woman, drawing them towards acts of major consequence. “It’s so beautiful and mystical,” Pawlikowski said. “It captures the mind and feels like a meditation. She understands jazz and she thinks she understand the boy.”

The director, whose past includes a stint as a jazz pianist “who couldn’t get out of the shadows of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett,” also uses the interlude as nod to the days when “there was a little bit of swinging going on in Poland.” This was the heyday of Krzysztof Komeda, whose soundtrack graced Roman Polanski’s debut “Knife in the Water.”

The filmmaker described the atmosphere on set as akin to a laboratory. With a locked-down camera observing dramatic interiors and wide-open landscapes, the film has both a deliberate photographic quality and an artful kitchen-sink mise-en-scene. There was no coverage. Instead, Pawlikowski said he wanted the strongest images. “Not pretty, but right and rich and kind of emotional,” he explained. “Some friends accuse me of making it too formal to be emotional.”

Those friends would be wrong. In Pawlikowski’s aesthetic, the power lies in his actors’ faces, in the light and shadow, in the distance of a gaze, in the discovery of a instant. “I’m so sick of cheap emotion nowadays,” he said. “A handheld camera conveys emotions even when there aren’t any. The shots have emotions because of what I put in them and how they are lit. It’s a magic space, and I wanted each moment to have its own kind of value.”

Pawlikowski mentions that “Ida” has gotten some backlash in Poland for not dealing more explicitly with the Holocaust. “Some people kind of resent that it’s not about a settling of accounts, or about guilt,” he said. “It is that, but it’s more about the journey of these two women. One journey ends quite drastically…and the other ends quite drastically.”

But he admitted that there was a bigger picture as well. “Possibly, it’s about the impossibility of living in Poland in 1962. Or the impossibility of living in the world in general. I left it open,” he said. “I wanted it to work by poetic principles rather than prosaic ones: To resonate within the viewer.”

The acclaim since its premiere last fall at the Telluride Film Festival suggests that the approach paid off. “I’m surprised it’s as popular as it is,” he said. “I really thought I was making  professional hari-kari. Polish films are so uncool in the world.”

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