In Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, set in Poland in the early 1960’s, Anna, a young woman on the verge of becoming a nun, leaves the convent – the only world she’s ever known, since arriving there as an orphaned infant - to visit her last living relative, her aunt Wanda, who’s long refused to take any interest in her. Wanda initially remains distant, beyond informing Anna for the first time that she’s Jewish and showing her a single photo of her mother, but later she mellows, and when Anna (or Ida, as she now learns she was originally named) decides to search for her parents’ unmarked grave, Wanda volunteers to drive her.
Anna and Wanda
The film quickly comes to resemble, for a while, a very stark mismatched-couple road movie: the young woman largely silent, self-contained; the other a dominating force of nature. Wanda was formerly a state prosecutor and official heroine of the post-war rebuilding; now she’s a judge, heavily dependent on booze and cigarettes, often on the look-out for male companionship. But of course, they occupy their separate spiritual and earthly poles less securely than one might initially think. In the course of their journey, Anna meets the first young man she’s ever been interested in; Wanda simply starts to run out of whatever it is that’s been keeping her going. In reopening the stories of the dead and forgotten, they necessarily reconfigure their own.
Pawlikowski was born in Poland, but came to prominence with a couple of films in Britain. He lost a lot of time due to personal and creative difficulties, before returning a few years ago with The Woman in the Fifth, a Parisian supernatural enigma with Ethan Hawke. Despite some intriguing details and a well-sustained tone, the film ultimately seemed largely worthless, the doodling of a man needing to get his name back out there yet with nothing left to say. Against this backdrop, Ida seems like a personal retrenchment of sorts, not only back to his homeland, but also back in time, restricting itself to modest means, black and white imagery and an unusually short running time (just 80 minutes).
It’s a remarkable success, providing the classic pleasures of the consciously sculptured art film while also seeming new, at times even unprecedented. In his New Yorker review of the film, Anthony Lane evoked Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Holocaust, which covers some of the same historical and geographical territory, and had been echoing in my head too. When I grew up in Britain, not so long after the events of Ida, the war was still heavily prominent (tiresomely prominent, was how I saw it) in popular culture and everyday discourse, but very much from the perspective of the puffed-up victor – it was almost impossible not to succumb to a caricatured view of the Nazis, and very easy not to think much about the substance of the Holocaust.
The stink of blood
Ida, in extreme contrast, examines a land where the stink of blood has barely been washed away, and where the culpability for wartime atrocities lies too widely and deeply to have been more than superficially purged, especially given the drabness of the new postwar society. The prospect of devoting one’s life to God seems here like mere social abdication rather than a road to enlightenment, but it’s not clear that anyone else has any better prospects; when the young musician, for instance, tries to articulate his dreams for the future, they quickly peter out. The dilemma of determining what to do with 0ne’s life runs throughout the film: the gaping mysteries in one’s past may provide an obvious source of direction for the present, but once those have been closed off, what then?
Pawlikowski composes the film simply but precisely, often placing the characters at the bottom of the picture with a large expanse of space above them (on several occasions forcing the subtitler to place the translation at the top of the screen), suggesting the unequal negotiation of the people and their environment. Consequently, although the film’s long, bumpy, closely-framed final shot retains some mystery regarding the details of what happens next, or what underlies it, it’s cinematically very powerful; the contrast with the prevailing style suggesting a new form of personal engagement even if, again, Poland as it exists at that moment may offer only limited ways of putting it into action.
I couldn’t help thinking too as I watched the film of current events in the Ukraine, especially as I saw it on the same day as the minor flap about Prince Charles’ comparison between Putin and Hitler. The fact that his stray remark, if only for a day or two, occupied more attention than the events themselves seems to illustrate again the mass craving for narrative simplicity, for pretending one can meaningfully engage with mass upheaval and human pain and dislocation through the prism of the same celebrity trivia that seems to provide our portal into everything else. I don’t know how one should assess Putin on the evil dictator scale, if it’s worth constructing such a thing, but his very existence, in such close proximity to the western Europe that we generally regard as another (if quirkier and perhaps longer suffering) version of our modern selves, constitutes a horrifying threat to our most basic modern assumption, that we’ve moved past certain kinds of dangers and traumas.
No Lessons to Offer
In his New York Times review of the film, A. O. Scott says: “Ida starts out, for the audience and perhaps herself, as an empty vessel, with little knowledge or experience of the world. To watch her respond to it is to perceive the activation of intelligence and the awakening of wisdom.” He concludes: “I can’t imagine anything more thrilling.” But while addressing the personal story at the centre of the film, this overlooks all else that happens around it, and seems like too optimistic an evaluation of what might realistically come next. For Ida’s generation of young women, it would be decades until Poland would offer life opportunities commensurate with a fully activated intelligence, and many worry that for her present-day counterparts, the continent might already be deep into a new age of squandered opportunity.
Pawlikowski says: “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. I wanted to tell a story in which ‘everyone has their reasons’; a story closer to poetry than plot.” But as with all great films, the end result goes beyond what he consciously planned; if there are no easily-extracted lessons, it may be not because the plot is so small, but because of its vastness.