Director: Paweł Pawilkowski
Writers: Rebecca Lenkiewicz & Paweł Pawilkowski
Cast: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza
Since yesterday I posted about last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film I figured that today I might as well discuss the most recent one to win.
This is not a Holocaust movie, but as far as genres go it does fall in closely with the category. Many films, good and bad, have been made about the Jewish experience during World War II and many have garnered attention and worthy praise. Very little, though, has been recounted of the survivors in the years following the war. Most films end with the conclusion of the war (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Downfall) and very few focus on the after-effects of the experience and the trauma. One very famous exception would be Sophie’s Choice, which shines a light on a woman devastated by the horrors of war who must live with the memories of what the war has wrought, until it just becomes too impossible to continue doing so.
Ida makes an appropriate companion piece to Sophie’s Choice, including the focus on a female perspective of the war. Pawilkowski shows that he has an affinity for stories told by the female perspective: his small movie My Summer of Love was a beautiful coming of age story of lesbian love. The story is in many ways a road movie, a journey shared by the titular Ida with her newly encountered aunt, Wanda. Ida, who initially goes by the name Anna, is an orphan who is two weeks shy of becoming a nun when her mother superior informs her of the existence of her aunt and instructs her to go see her prior to taking her vows. The young nun goes to Wanda who informs her of the fact that, unbeknownst to her, she is a Jew and that her parents died during the war and the German occupation of Poland. Ida wants to see where her parents are buried and Wanda decides to accompany her on the trip. Most of the emotional components of the film are left to Wanda, as Ida was a mere baby when the war ended. Wanda, played marvelously by Agata Kulesza, reveals (much like Sophie) the desperation, emptiness, pain and guilt that afflict a survivor and witness of unspeakable horrors. Her loss permeates every scene she is in, and it is what gives a heartbeat to an otherwise stark and desolate film.
There are very few actors in the film, and even less extras. The choice to film in black and white is an appropriate one, and echoes French new-wave cinema in style and composition. Shots are established and kept for longer than action takes place (a shot of a road begins before a car crosses the path and stays a few seconds longer than necessary), which echoes Antonioni’s shooting aesthetic in the 60s. The dialogue is sparse and when spoken it feels important and necessary. Clearly the movie is not for everyone, and to some could be boring – especially if expecting “action” that just isn’t there. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The film has garnered, in addition to all the praise, also some criticism. Some Polish people have criticized the movie for depicting Poles as anti-Jewish and for not mentioning the countless number of Poles that lost their lives trying to defend and aid their Jewish neighbors. Well, firstly the main thing to mention is that the movie doesn’t depict all Poles as such, and in fact only one. But besides that point, it is inconceivable that a work of art, and we must remember that the film is art and not a documentary or historical artifact, should not come with an exculpatory addendum. We would find it ridiculous if a horror film premised the viewing with a statement that not all white men are serial killers, so stating that not all Polish people were prejudiced would be equally bizarre. Lastly, and probably most importantly, this constant need to focus on the “not everyone” instead of admitting to the larger issue is an attempt to cause a massive national amnesia. We see this all the time, and in fact it is done quite successfully. From the American detention of Americans of Japanese heritage during World War II to the Indonesian extermination of “Communists” in the 60s, these topics are largely missing from discourse and very little is said about them. The fact of the matter is that throughout Europe, including Poland, there were a myriad of sympathizers and collaborators who marked, either directly or indirectly, the end of many lives, most of them Jewish. During the war many nationals occupied and claimed property and land that belonged to the dead and imprisoned men and women, and after the war they refused to return them to their rightful owners or their families. These are truths that must be accepted and acknowledged, and the statements and efforts to conceal or change the gaze onto the innocents is wrong and counterproductive.