The Power of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”

A 2013 Polish masterpiece confronts the visible and invisible traumatic effects of the Holocaust.

ida"You are Jewish. And your real name is Ida." These two trenchant sentences, uttered by Wanda, a Polish-Jewish communist, to her niece Anna, a twenty-year-old novitiate ready to become a nun, define the infinitely complex story captured in "Ida," a 2013 Polish masterpiece. Historically, the film, situated in the grim atmosphere of socialist Poland in the early 1960s, deals with the visible and invisible traumatic effects of the Holocaust. Psychologically, it is a meditation on the many faces of human freedom, on what it means to be a woman, a Christian, a Jew, and a human being in a century marred by genocides and destructive ideological passions.

Before taking her celibacy oath, Anna follows the Mother Superior's urge to visit her aunt, her only relative and, we find out, the only other survivor of a family that perished during the Holocaust. This encounter leads to a quest for a long-buried past, to appalling revelations, and to Anna's final return to her monastic calling. But this is a different woman, one who has lost her original innocence by discovering, in a most concrete, material way, the existence of Evil. Anna the nun will remain forever indebted to her sinful aunt for having allowed her to recover a tragic family history, even if this confrontation with the past meant Wanda's own breakdown. To say more about the plot in this article will spoil the experience of seeing one of the great movies of our times. Just one caveat: Do not expect simple questions in this film, and even less so simple answers.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is an entrancingly absorbing movie. A film of utmost purity, with frames that remain forever grafted in one’s mind. A film about memory, trauma, truth, and the pursuit of one’s inner self. It belongs in the same category with the great films of Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Agnieszka Holland.

Wanda is an overwhelming character, right out of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel “Ashes and Diamonds.” Once the horrible, dreaded, “Iron Wanda,” “Red Wanda,” a fanatic communist prosecutor asking for death penalties against alleged "enemies of the people," she is now merely pathetic. Her first name is reminiscent of the notorious Wanda Wasilewska, Stalin’s favorite amongst Polish communists, whom he otherwise detested (see Marci Shore’s book “Caviar and Ashes”). With the utopia shattered to pieces, all that was left were the cigarettes, the one-night stands, and the vodka. In the company of her niece, she rediscovers her lost humanity. Or, at least, she hopes to retrieve it, together with the long suppressed memories of her Jewish fate.

Most probably, Wanda’s character is somehow inspired by the famous, or rather the grisly Julia (Luna) Brystigyer and Helena Wolynska-Brus, both active members of the repressive apparatus in the 1950s (the former as an investigator and head of the Security’s anti-clerical department, the latter as a military prosecutor). In either case, these two avatars of Polish Stalinism at its harshest were what Agata Kulesza, the actress assigned to the role, had in mind when playing the part. Pawlikowski himself told her about the case of Helena Brus. Nonetheless, what the actress went for – and I believe she succeeded in – was an attempt to summon up the human in that which was, in fact, its very opposite: “It was a challenge for my character to carry around all this past and also remain someone whom people could like.” One year before her death, the sadistic Luna converted to Catholicism. But did she ever repent?

Anna (Ida), played by Agata Trzebuchowska, is seemingly glacial, seraphic, Antigone-like, in a tragic-discreet way. Her gaze is reminiscent of a Vermeer painting. Aunt and niece alike, marred by the curse of the totalitarian twins – as the great Polish writer Jerzy Giedroyc called them – Stalinism and Nazism. In sum, bloodlands, to use the title of Timothy Snyder's great book. The psychological suspense is astonishing. Not to mention the use of shadows and silence (much like in Bergman’s films). And Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is the ideal soundtrack for Wanda’s catharsis. Just look at the window.

Wanda and Anna’s conversation about the funeral of the boy who had been killed twenty years before is illuminating. Anna suggests bringing a priest, whilst Wanda – putting on a sarcastic, yet melancholy smile – responds: “A rabbi, perhaps.”

Politics is undetectable throughout the film. The political myth is, nevertheless, present. The story takes place in a dictatorship. An atheist tyranny born (enforced, actually) on the tormented soil of a martyred Poland. The same place where the catastrophe called Shoah had occurred. Where the Nazis had tried to obliterate all Christian compassion and human solidarity. The secret remains are discovered and put to rest where they really belong, in a Jewish cemetery with derelict, shattered tombstones. Wanda has fulfilled her destiny, but she could not have done it alone, without Anna. And Anna could not have done it without becoming who she once was, namely Ida.

The year is 1962, we are in a courtroom where Wanda is the judge. On the wall, just above her head, the picture of the party boss Wladislaw Gomulka. The restaurant is filled with Adriano Celentano’s music and a lot of jazz (John Coltrane). Tavern scenes play a key role in Polish cinema. In the films of young Andrzej Wajda, the song Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino – among others – is heard playing in restaurants. For us Eastern Europeans, “Ashes and Diamonds” was our very own “Casablanca.”

Someone asked Pawlikowski: why doesn’t Anna choose to remain Ida? In Poland back then, Jewish identity was dubious, negated publicly and denied privately. Just five years later, after the Six-Day War, overt anti-Semitism broke out afresh, as party and state policy. Then came March 1968, the students’ revolt, the arrests, the new and last exodus.

Historian Jan Gross wrote about post-Auschwitz anti-Semitism. Moreover, Anna’s way back to the monastery is related to her double orphan status. She had lost her family, she is now losing it once more. In a world of utter uprooting, Anna chooses to leave all that is worldly behind. She turns to Jesus, she absconds so that she may everlastingly mourn those “killed at dawn” (Zbigniew Herbert). She will wash the statue of Christ for all eternity, hoping to learn from the Son of Man how it was possible for humanity to descend into the horror of the Holocaust. A toil of memory and a toil of mourning, “Ida” is, above all, a harrowing confession about the damaged lives (to use Theodor W. Adorno’s words) of those who inhabited what was once Central Europe.

[This article was translated from Romanian by Monica Got.]

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