Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is devastating, and he knows it. Set in Poland 1962, when the British-trained Pawlikowski was a little boy, this dreamlike road movie follows a convent-raised orphan girl named Anna who is told that her birth name is Ida Lebenstein, and that her parents were Jewish and murdered in the war. The courier of this shocking news is Ida’s caustic, free-spirited aunt Wanda who resents her niece’s innocence but takes the girl under her wing anyway to uncover the dark reality of her family’s past in the Polish pastoral.
“Ida” played the festival circuit up and down between last year and 2014, sweeping accolades and acclaim along the way. It collected nearly $4 million at the US box office, outmatching its take in France where the film was deemed a hit. “Ida” won five European Film Awards including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenwriter, plus Best Actress nominations for Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska.
This exquisitely compact, wrenching throwback to arthouse yesteryear is now an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Another pleasant surprise? Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski are also up for an Academy Award.
Pawlikowski and I spoke on the phone. Below he opens up about his, perhaps to some, curmudgeonly view of the current cinema (he loves Fellini’s “8 1/2”), his desire for a “cinema sui generis,” Poland’s response to the film and much more. He’s a fascinating interview. “Ida” is now on VOD and home video.
“Ida” debuted in the Spring, but it has lived quite a life since. It had a very successful run for an art film in the
United States, where it has been perceived as a return to the glory days of the arthouse, the days of Dreyer and Bergman and Bresson. Was that your intention?
“Ida” is not an imitation of any of those, but
it is a similar to a cinema that is more contemplative, a little quieter, but
about big things at the same time. Possibly. Or, just superficially they are
reminded of those filmmakers because it’s black-and-white and 4:3. I don’t
know what people are thinking when they say these things. But, it is definitely
flattering. So, I’m not against it.
Why did you shoot in black-and-white, and in the boxy Academy ratio of 4:3?
Initially, it was just an intuition I had, that it was the
right format and the right form for a film that is set in that period; and,
also, because I remember that period in black-and-white. And, I imagine it in
black-and-white. So, it was quite natural that I should think of it in black
and white. Even in writing the script, I was already convinced that that is how
it should look and feel. As I was preparing the film, I realized that I was
making a film that was not realistic at all. Black-and-white is a way of removing the film from the semblance of realism. It’s psychologically realistic and the story is
set in a particular time and place but I wanted the film to feel more as a
timeless meditation than a realist story, or a story that aims at realism. There is this fashion of
films that “feel real.” I used to be guilty of this myself in my
earlier films, 10 or 15 years ago. Now, I have this urge for contemplation, for
films that leave me space to fill in and to imagine, and stay with me longer as
a result. And, I wanted “Ida” to be like that, not to feel like a film that explains history or tells a very dramatic
story. It does all these things up to a point, but it’s more like a dream that you
remember, once you’ve seen it.
While “Ida” engages with European history — particularly a controversy over Poland’s treatment of its own Jews during WWII that is still very fresh — we’ve seen that before. This is not, at the forefront, a historical film. Do you agree?
I tried to attempt the impossible: to make a historical film
that doesn’t feel historical. History is still very palpable in European, and in European films. And, when you make them in Poland, history is
very palpable. The temptation is to try and explain history and spend a lot of
effort on coloring it in and often the end result is
some kind of version of history where the Poles are either victims, or perpetrators. There’s always some kind of rather crude explanation of history.
Whereas, from my view, humanity is much more nuanced, and ambiguous, and
complex. So, I tried to steer clear of such explanations and show, on the one hand, something that is ambiguous and full of paradoxes and, on the other
hand, is a kind of timeless reflection on them — on identity, on the
individual, his relationship with the historical moment as an individual, the
paradoxes of the human soul, how many people we can be in one lifetime, or even
how many people we can be in one day. That’s what art is good at, as opposed to politics or journalism. So, that’s what I
wanted to do. But, I wasn’t quite sure if it would come off.
What have the political and ideological reactions to the film been like in Poland?
I was thinking,
“God, I’m attempting the impossible: to do a historical film and then not
fit in all these things that people expect me to fill in and explain who
exactly are the good guys, who are the bad guys.” You can sort of work it
out. But, the film is not about that. And, I’m very happy that it’s been
largely received in that way. Although, many people, who have the various
political, ideological bees in their bonnet deconstruct the film
in their own way and attack it for being anti-Polish, or anti-this, or
anti-that, or anti-secular. Some even accuse me of being anti-Semitic,
which is quite puzzling. So, there you are. But, these are people who don’t
mentally engage with the film and the reality I’ve tried to project, and don’t
enter the film with open eyes, and open minds and hearts. They already know
what they know. And they just check to see if the film confirms it or
frustrates it. But, they’re not the majority, thank god. Though, I do get
sniped at here and there.
Your film leaves a lot of responsibility with the audience, and there is a great deal of narrative ambiguity. Is it easy for an audience to map whatever they want to see onto a film like this?
Well, in fact, “In a good film,” as somebody
once said, “you have dialogues with yourself.” It’s not the
lesson that you’re trying to impart to the audience. It’s more like explorations of these characters, of these paradoxes, of these mysteries of human
nature and of life. For me, good films and good books are irreducible to a
lesson. You can’t just kind of translate them into one statement. On the
contrary, the more you do that, the less wisdom in art there is. As Chekhov
said, “The definition of a work of art is the proper exploration of a
problem.” Rather than trying to impart a lesson.
How did you find your young lead Agata Trzebuchowska? I was astounded to learn that she is not a professional actress. This is her
She didn’t want to act. She’s not really an actress.
Acting isn’t something that tempts her, which makes her kind of perfect for the
part. There’s not a histrionic bone in her body. She’s very grounded, very
calm. She listens. She knows how to listen and observe and thinks before she
speaks. Quite a rare creature these days. We found her at a cafe just reading a
book, minding her own business. And, she looked interesting. So, we tested her.
And, that was after months and months of desperate search for an actress that
could embody Ida and failing to find one. I must have tested 400 young actors
and students of theater. And, I was going a bit crazy. The problem is that Ida is a
very rare character — physiologically, sociologically — and psychologically a
very unusual character. So, it’s kind of difficult to [portray] that. Until you
find somebody that’s in the right ballpark. And Agata is definitely
that. Paradoxically, she’s a complete atheist and a principled one.
A principled atheist.
Exactly. There was something very thoughtful and
coherent about her approach to life. And, a lot of these young actresses were
telling me that they always wanted to be a nun, or they’re very religious. And,
they’d love to act that onscreen. Whereas, there was something about Agata that was very honest, and grounded, and calm, and strong. Thank God,
excuse the pun, for this encounter. And, she was great.
For much of the film, Trzebuchowska has to carry all these emotions silently, in her face. That may be why the film is reminds us of a more classical era of arthouse cinema, where the actor’s face had to do the work. How did a non-professional actor achieve this?
It was a very difficult
part. There’s not a whole range of emotions she acts. But,
what she does is very powerful. And, for her, it was the first time on a film
set. So, she was very strong to be surrounded by a film crew and a really
powerful actress, and actors but above all the actress that plays opposite her, Agata Kulesza, is a very experienced theater virtuoso. She didn’t crack-up at all. She was
really strong, just as Ida would have been strong. And, the relationship of the
two actresses kind of reflected the relationship of the two characters on
screen. One: very experienced, an extravert by and large and wanting to be a
protagonist, and in the center, and being able to impersonate all sorts of
things and having several faces, several characters. And, the other one:
all-over peace, calm, and naive in a good way, and unused to social
interaction, unused to acting and performing with her face. So, that worked very
I have struggled with Robert Bresson all my moviegoing life, but I did feel “Ida” has some of his dreamlike rhythms, and elliptical editing style, like “Au Hasard Balthazar” and “Mouchette,” which are more parable than “Ida” but are also about young women entering the world. Is Bresson an influence for you?
People have compared my film to Bresson. Bresson was much more radical. His non-acting was so radical that I think it’s
too radical for my taste. But, definitely Bresson was the pioneer in that
direction. But I’m not
into non-professional actors, per se. For me, actors have to have a character,
an aura, body language. They’re not models. They used to call actors models. But I want them to participate in the film. I admire Bresson greatly, but it’s a different sort of thing. I suppose his impatience with the
theatrical and with cinema being steeped, or contaminated, by theater, by
literature, I kind of share that up to a point. I do. I do like cinema that is
sui generis, that doesn’t borrow from the other arts.
There is, notably, no score in this film, limited dialogue and the camera almost never moves. Every shot could stand on its own, like a photograph. Were you trying to go against the grain of what we expect to see in the current cinema?
Even when I was writing and rewriting the script, I was trying to strip it
of the bad exposition of dialogue, the kind of empty emoting, the kind of
stuff that passes for emotion in cinema — head-shots, too many
closeups, that kind of rhetoric of emotion that cinema uses very freely these
days. Because, I wanted something simple and quiet, and for the images to be
strong, and not informative, but to draw you into the world of the film, but
not to feed you information. I wanted the audience to enter each scene through
one strong image. Practically all the scenes are shot from one angle, sometimes
in an single shot. And, I wanted that shot to be strong — not beautiful, but emotionally
charged, and to go hand-in-hand with the acting and with the sound, and to draw
the audience into this kind of permanent present tense. Not to have the usual
feeding and leading the audience by close-ups and reverse shots and the usual
grammar of cinema. I don’t think Bresson does
that. In fact, I don’t think there is one filmmaker that I was thinking of when
I was making this film.
In many contemporary films, the camera exists to cover events, really, and nothing else. And, “Ida” is the antithesis of that, which is why this film, to me at least, feels like water in a desert.
In a way, [“Ida”] was a reaction to contemporary cinema.
Most of the films I watch just wash off me like water off a duck’s back. “Why do they move
the camera? Why is it centered? Why is there a close-up? Why does the dialogue
have to explain everything? Why do people explain what they think and what they
feel always in dialogue?” Needing all this information for the plot to work just doesn’t work for me. Therefore, I tried to make a film
that doesn’t do that.
This is the Polish submission to the Oscars. What is that process?
It had a fantastic reaction at festivals. It won like 70 awards,
apparently. I haven’t counted it up. For film, actors, camera. And, it had like
600,000 viewers in France. So, it was like the most popular Polish-speaking
film in history, in France. In the States, it did quite well. So, I suppose
they just put two and two together — that it was quite a good submission for the
Oscars. I don’t know. I wasn’t there when they made that decision.
So you are not involved.
No, it had nothing to do with me. But, it’s nice. And, it’s
certainly bizarre, because I would never dream that a film I was making had
anything to do with the Oscars. If somebody had told me that, I would have
thought it was a joke. But, a year later, it’s a Polish submission for the
Oscars. What do you know?
Are you preparing
another film now?
I am preparing, yes. As always, I’m writing, like, three
different scripts at the same time, and just jumping from one to the next,
waiting for one of them to really gel and to pull me along. I think I will be
shooting something late summer, next summer probably.