Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebokowska, Agneta Kulesza , Dawid Ogrodnik
Spoiler Alert: This film has sub-titles and it’s black and white!
Okay – that wasn’t really a spoiler, but my point is that many people wouldn’t bother going to see a black and white film let alone one with sub-titles. Unlike our European cousins, UK mainstream audiences are pretty close-minded when it comes to anything less than Technicolor, full Dolby Digital surround sound and actors speaking in our native tongue. This reluctance to leave the comfort zone is a real shame, because it means missing out on a fabulous smorgasbord of international film excellence that includes the Oscar winning foreign language masterpiece ‘Ida’.
Set in 1962, ‘Ida’ is an evocative rendition of everything that unified The Polish Film School after World War II and gave this film movement global recognition. Politics and ‘the message’ in cultural products (film, music, literature) that originated during Soviet rule from 1945 to 1989, had to adhere to the dominant ideology. But many Polish and Soviet filmmakers during this period found ways to tell their story, to hide their politics and appear to tow the line at the same time. In many ways it wasn’t very different to Hollywood cinema today. Writers and directors often have an agenda that would never get funded or produced if their real intentions were declared. That’s one of the things that makes Hollywood cinema so interesting and vacuous at the same time.
‘Ida’ introduces Anna, an 18-year-old novitiate who was orphaned as a baby and has grown up in a convent. A few weeks away from taking her final vows, the Mother Superior instructs Anna to seek out her only living relative – an aunt called Wanda Grub. Anna is the antithesis of her chain-smoking, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous aunt, who it turns out, is also a state magistrate. Wanda informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that she is Jewish. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, a Christian family hid Ida and her parents as well as Wanda’s young son while Wanda was away fighting with the Resistance. But fearing for their lives should they be found hiding Jews, the family murdered Ida’s parents and Wanda’s son. Only Ida was spared because she was young, light skinned and could pass for a Christian. Ida was subsequently left with the nuns and the murderers took possession of the Lebenstein home. Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebokowska) and Wanda (Agneta Kulesza), in the middle of winter, reluctantly team up and head off on the most unlikely road trip. Together they must track down the people who hid their relatives during the war and find out what became of them. For Anna this journey becomes a rite of passage for an innocent girl with no life experience. Wanda on the other hand is a woman of the world – fearless, harsh and deeply troubled.
Agata Trzebokowska plays Anna/Ida flawlessly. Her performance is truly exceptional, particularly so because Trzebokowska has very little acting experience. On the other hand, experienced actress Agneta Kulesza has gravitas as Wanda and together the neophyte and the veteran play out a parallel scenario in the narrative. The film also uses an unusual aspect ratio of 1:37:1, (1:1:37) which gives a boxed in feeling, the dominant ratio used by Polish filmmakers during the sixties. So once again Pawlikowski has resorted to history and the archives to make his point. The characters and the action in ‘Ida’ are located in the lower half of the frame throughout the film. This means that we see huge vaulted ceilings or vast empty skies and landscapes where the people are firmly rooted to the earth with an ever-present sense of something greater happening above. The film is loaded with signifiers – an enigmatic cartography of everything that has gone before but remains concealed.
Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland and moved to the UK when he was a child. An academic and also an award winning documentary filmmaker, Pawlikowski has made a handful of feature films to date. But ‘Ida’ could easily be mistaken for the work of Andrzej Wajda, a renowned Polish film director much admired by Pawlikowski. The enigmatic quality of the narrative, the content, the direction and the use of black and white, seamlessly leads us to the work of former masters. In particular, the hotel scene in ‘Ida’, where Wanda’s promiscuity is juxtaposed against the innocence of Anna, evidences the influence of Wajda’s classic ‘Ashes And Diamonds’.
Pawlikowski never fully explains any of the characters or events in the story. Instead through the use of close-ups that linger on Anna, Wanda and objects, the audience is forced to draw their own conclusions about events in the film. This creates an eerie quality that is almost abject in its lack of precise explanation. When Anna and Wanda are eventually confronted with the mass grave containing their family, we are spared the remains. Instead Pawlikowski shows a hole then a mound of earth before jumping to the next image, which shows the women wrapping something in a cloth. All of this is conducted in silence and the effect is powerful and haunting. It’s also a perfect example of a montage sequence; subject, object, subject and then our own conclusions must be drawn.
This probably isn’t the sort of film that you watch with the family on a bank holiday Monday. ‘Ida’ certainly isn’t action driven; instead it has a rhythmic almost poetic unfolding of the truth. And it unwraps some ugly and disturbing periods in history that many might prefer to keep buried. It garnered strong opposition from Catholic factions in Poland upon its release. But it is worth watching and then watching again. By the end of the film, you won’t remember the sub-titles and you might not even care that it was made in black and white.