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The Plausibility of a Jewish Nun in Postwar Poland

by Michael Blum on May 16, 2014

Film still from  Pawel Pawlikowski’s 'Ida' (all stills by the author for Hyperallergic)

Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ (all stills by the author for Hyperallergic)

Whenever a film arrives on the scene that has something exceptional, eccentric, or anomalous about it, it’s likely to arouse the most excited, hyperbolic, and often dissenting responses from critics. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida seems to have accomplished just this. The Polish import has been lauded for bearing revelations of a high order, celebrated for being “devoutly restrained and unshakably purposeful,” and, for good balance, brutally reproached for being “a pernicious fraud—an aesthetic one and a historical one.”

Ida is an unusual film, and one deserving of most of the praise it’s earned from two of the aforementioned critics. Between its Polish release last year and its (non-festival) US premiere this month, it collected a number of international awards, several of which went to Lukasz Zal for his penetrating cinematography. Zal shot digitally in a black and white that at times appears viscous and dreamy, at other times vibrantly awake — a range that adequately mirrors the dispositions of the film’s two leads and complements the temperament of the story, as well as the stages on which it’s set (intricately decaying buildings, empty fields under imposing gray skies, haunted forests).

Still from 'Ida' (click to enlarge)

Still from ‘Ida’ (click to enlarge)

Though Ida’s presentation can have an oneiric beauty, its terrain is first and foremost historical. The film takes place against the wintry, muted backdrop of Poland in 1962, a place and time marked as pervasively by traces of what occurred during World War II as by a collective intent on forgetting and living past them. The film doesn’t, however, linger heavily on verdicts of national culpability with respect to this forgetting; instead, it plays with a permeable fault line between innocence and guilt — an at times overlapping field of deceitful repression and vital forgetfulness.

At the start of the film, Anna (played with impressive reserve by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a taciturn nun ensconced in a snowy convent, is instructed by her prioress to visit her only living relative, an aunt, before taking her vows. Anna busses into town to meet this aunt, one Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a formerly esteemed prosecutor and apparatchik, since fallen into a cynical, semi-alcoholic torpor. Wanda impassively receives Anna (“Yes, I know who you are”) and then, without pretense or affectation, between drags on a cigarette, reveals to Anna that she is in fact Jewish by birth (“So you are a Jewish nun”), and that her name is not Anna, but Ida — Ida Lebenstein, daughter of Haim and Rózy.

Despite a slightly turbulent initial confrontation, Anna and Wanda eventually develop an ineffable, though not untroubled, affection for one another. Each motivated by the other, they embark on a languorous, extended road trip to find the burial place of Haim and Rózy, and to learn how they came to die.

Still from ‘Ida’

Still from ‘Ida’

What ensues is an indecisive, triply disquieting family reunion. For one, Anna — with reticent reverence and still sporting her nun’s habit — grapples with her aunt’s (as well as secular society’s) alien sensibility and its attendant barbs (decadence, sexuality), none of which she has ever encountered in her monastic existence. What’s more, she’s faced with simultaneously learning of and mourning for her dead parents — paying homage to a past that is most properly hers, but of which she has no memory at all. Finally, she must come to terms with her own submerged identity, one drastically conflictual, quite obviously, with her life’s vocation as a nun. All of these relationships twist and turn around the encounter with the site of a crime that more or less precipitated them all in the first place.

The rudimentary story that Ida departs from — an orphaned nun unaware of her immediate Jewish heritage — almost sounds like a folkish, slapstick anecdote told between two central European kind-of-anti-semites. And indeed, the film’s scenario does have a grimly farcical side to it. Or it would, if this situation — the revelation of Jewish family relations, hidden from younger generations in the wake of the total destruction of WWII — weren’t in fact a somewhat frequently occurring phenomenon in Poland. Ida does a fantastic job at avoiding succumbing to the inherent irony of its plot. And this has to do in part with the unassuming power of the film’s formal and thematic complexion. Nearly every scene vibrates, each in its own beguilingly inert way (stillness being the predominant quality of the film) with an emphatic simplicity that has rarely been achieved in recent feature films, rarer still among those about trauma and historical memory.

Whenever a film that claims historical trauma as its subject is released, it’s appropriate to hold one’s breath, mutter to oneself, and expect the worst — that is, the same: yet another sensationalized, saccharine muddling of the tragedy, indelibly marked by an obvious and all-consuming preoccupation with Oscar contention. Staid binaries of good and evil, invasive soundtracks engineered to manipulate emotional registers of identification, ingratiating moral conclusions, and a polished, beauteous, overly cinematic sheen are the norm here. (This impairment isn’t Hollywood’s alone: see Germany’s Generation War for one of the most recent infractions of this sort.)

Still from 'Ida'

Still from ‘Ida’

Ida marks a decidedly strong and refreshing antithesis to this kind of film. But although it has been praised for, among other things, exploring “the legacy of the Holocaust” in Poland and probing a “historical situation which continues to resonate,” so much of Ida’s forcefulness derives from the fact that it is also, in a way, set at a harrowing remove from these historical matters. In the film, the locus of tragedy is an effaced, leveled terrain. “I want to visit their graves,” Anna tells Wanda early in the film. The latter replies, with pronounced disillusion: “They have no graves.”

These places — graves and other loci of disaster — are demolished, hidden, forgotten, and thus usually repressed sites of unspeakable crime. Without fetishizing absence, Pawlikowski effectively withdraws from that monumental filmic portrayal of tragedy that gives itself over to be consumed as spectacle, thereby prohibiting actual confrontation with Ida’s historical subject. Instead, the filmfocuses on shallow pits, empty fields, silent, looming forests, clinical state-run hotels, and decrepit hospitals. Memory is shown as a spectral current running between an unseen, tragic past embedded in these spaces and that past’s reverberations in Anna and Wanda — both of whom experience interior trials of different kinds in the film’s final act.

Still from 'Ida' (click to enlarge)

Still from ‘Ida’ (click to enlarge)

For all that, Ida doesn’t entirely bow to its own morbidity. Its focus on the Holocaust and the war, as well as the enormous repressions that followed them, is indecisive, hazy, and meandering. Ida marks Pawlikowki’s first feature made in his native Poland, from which he emigrated as a teen following a period of especially difficult political repression in the Soviet satellite state. Ida is thus a homecoming of sorts, and a necessarily awkward one given its narrative. Pawlikowki’s depiction of the postwar Polish-Jewish rapport is suspended and mired in his own personal encounter with his native country and its burdened cultural memory, as well as its optimistic lightness, represented in a handsome alto saxophonist who befriends Anna (and who plays a sweet rendition of Coltrane’s “Naima”). In this way, the director nimbly superimposes a performance of his own reunion with Poland onto the journey and respective fates of Anna and Wanda.

This gesture of Pawlikowski’s — like so many other aspects of the film (its “arty” black-and-white photography, its ethical equivocation, to name a couple) — could have easily taken a vulgar turn. Ida is a vulnerable work for sure, but a delicate, admirable one that gets more things right than wrong. And, one of its unsung virtues: it’s only 80 minutes long.

Ida, distributed in the US by Music Box Films, is currently playing in select theaters nationwide and will continue its release through the summer.

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