Poles Apart: Ida

Poles Apart: Framing Polish History in Ida

By Tom Prasch

Notice how often, in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, the unusual square frame of the film barely contains the main figures. They come into the frame at the corners, as if the camera weren’t quite aimed at them. Or again, notice how often, as the camera holds stationary, characters move through an image, the camera refusing to chase after them in a pan. Two obvious such moments: when Ida, finding sanctuary in a church on her journey, sits down on the cot she has been provided, and in the process almost vanishes from the frame; and when we last see Wanda, crossing across the interior view the camera holds and out of the frame. Although many frames of this film show but a single figure, there are strikingly few close-ups.
Ida is set in Poland in 1962, and its images—somethingabout that squared frame, and the black-and-white film stock, with its rich range of grays—have the feel of old snapshots, a fitting framing for a historical subject. And, incidentally, this is likely the most strikingly composed film you have seen in ages, each frame carefully balanced and thought through, shot by shot a film of exquisite visual beauty despite (or is it because of?) the relentless bleakness of its landscapes, the spare starkness of its interiors. But that tendency of the camera to focus past its central figures, to hold them to the edges, not to be about them, suggests something else about that moment in time as well: that this was not a time of heroic, bigger-than-life personalities; indeed, perhaps that this was a time when individuals scarcely mattered, against the grinding indifference of broader historical processes.
For all that, Ida is nevertheless a deeply personal story, anchored to two women’s life trajectories (the handful of other characters who wander into the film’s frame scarcely matter), those two lives brought rather surprisingly together to shape one odd road trip. The set-up is easy: Ida, a war orphan raised by church, now a young novitiate, is preparing for a life in the nunnery when she is told by her priest that she has one living family member who she must visit before taking her vows (the number of survivors in her family constitutes her/our first clue). The relative is her aunt Wanda, aka “Red Wanda,” a moniker earned for her ferocious pursuit of ideological purity during the just-passed Stalinist era (Khruschev’s “secret speech” about the excesses and errors of Stalinism in 1956 had ushered in a thaw, and a change in government in Poland in 1961 provided its provincial echo; in the film’s timeframe, this is reflected in Wanda’s exile from the centers of power, although her Party status still comes with privileges, like a roomy apartment and a steady supply of spirits). Wanda, in turn, provides Ida with a revelation (and provides it with wry, sarcastic glee): that the girl who is about to become a nun is Jewish.
In most respects, Ida and Wanda seem poles (so to speak) apart: one inexperienced, chaste, modest, nearly silent as she explores an unfamiliar world, and deeply Catholic; the other rough and rowdy, hard-drinking and heavy-smoking and drawn to joyless one-night stands, and firmly Communist. Yet at another level they are the same: both living embodiments of the destruction of and silence about Polish Jewry. Each exemplifies a familiar sort of story about that abandoned heritage, orphan Ida’s Catholic upbringing the compromise over faith that ensured her survival, Wanda’s siding with the Communist partisans against the Nazi occupiers a deliberate choice of ideology over faith or family. The journey the two take to learn (both of them) the buried secrets of the shared family history reveal another all-too-familiar story about Polish Judaism, and about Polish complicity in the Holocaust, although the specific dynamics of that tale refuse to follow the predictable black/white dichotomies we expect of our Holocaust tales. There are Polish peasants who sheltered Jews, Polish peasants who turned Jews over to the Gestapo, and Polish peasants who killed Jews themselves while claiming their goods and land; sometimes, Polish peasants made more than one of these choices.
In its excavation of this war-era past, Ida follows familiar precedents. A vast range of postwar Polish historical cinema, after all, has engaged this Holocaust-haunted terrain: think Andrzej Wajda, whether at the start of his career or near the end of it; Agnieszka Holland, in the trilogy that launched her career or her most recent work; Roman Polanski, when being true to his Polish roots. But Ida’s real uniqueness lies elsewhere, in its limning of the mid-Communist era, roughly halfway between war’s end and the emergence of Solidarity. To put it another way: Ida and Wanda’s road trip may take them to a familiar destination, the Holocaust in their own family, but the territory it goes through on the way, the “present” of Poland in 1962, is far less familiar in historical film. For Pawlikowski, born in 1957, the work amounts to a recollection of childhood through the distancing lens of exile (the director having lived outside of Poland since the age of thirteen).
Two adjectives summarize Ida’s vision of mid-Communist Poland: bleak and compromised. The bleakness shows in, well, everything, for this is a Poland still war-ravaged, unthriving under Communist rule, deeply agrarian and thus impoverished in its roots: its barren rooms, its material paucity, its range of grays; its austere churches, its impoverished peasants, its shabby hotel rooms, its sad jazz bands playing in near-empty halls in provincial hotels, everything about it dated and ragged and spartan. The compromises figure throughout as well: in the carefully constructed complicity between Catholic church and Communist state, so unlike either the ferocious opiate-of-the-people official atheism of other Communist states or the firm established-church foundations of Catholicism in pre-war Poland; in the choices made, and then unmade, by Polish peasants, living once upon a time side by side with Jews, seeking survival under successive waves of Soviet, then Nazi, then Soviet occupation; in Wanda’s own life choices (which were, after all, unlike Ida’s, actual choices) to give up faith and family (and how much family we learn through the course of the film), but to get in return a place in the postwar hierarchy; in Wanda’s post-power position, her role in the show trials and repression of the just-ended era neither quite valorized nor condemned, her privileges preserved but her place shifted silently toward the margins; in that jazz band, their music on the one hand a modernizing/westernizing vibe, Coltrane tunes and beatnik vibe and just a hint of the rock ‘n roll that had not quite come that far east yet, but on the other hand, in those empty halls, with their modest means, lacking lyrics with which to stir dissent, finally utterly unthreatening, an avant-gardism the state can live with.
Ida and Wanda’s road trip in Ida ends with its own discoveries and revelations; those, in turn, lead the two protagonists toward actions that re-accommodate the terms of their lives (and their compromises) with the new knowledge they have acquired. But I can’t talk about any of the details of that until after you have seen the film; come back next month and we can discuss it. Meanwhile, however, in a fascinating interview with film blogger Sydney Levine, Pawlikowski laid out three paradoxical aims for his film: “I wanted to make a film about history that wouldn’t feel like a historical film—a film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer…. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema.” In all three aims, Pawlikowski masterfully finds a cinematic language to embody his paradoxical intent. The result is a visually stunning masterpiece.