Magazine Poland

CineClub: Ida (2013), by Pawel Pawlikowski


Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Ida (2013), by Pawel Pawlikowski.

Two generations, different worldviews and opposite paths of life. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning movie Ida (2013) is a stirringly emotional Polish drama that evokes the societal and individual remorse in post-World War II Poland through the eyes of a conservative novice nun and an alcoholic, lecherous judge.

Pawel Pawlikowski, arguably one of the most prominent Polish filmmakers today, was previously largely unknown to the general public, with perhaps only a small Polish art film fan community able to recognize his name on the screen before Ida received an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2015.

The acclaimed movie offers an unusual style-cavalcade as it was shot in black-and-white with a 4:3 display aspect ratio, while the scriptwriters kept the dialogue scenes to a minimum. With this approach, Pawlikowski’s film can be somewhat reminiscent of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s sober and dramatic style in the 1960s.

Trapped in the past

One of the greatest strengths of the film is undoubtedly the brilliantly built-up characters: while Ida (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) is a deep-set eyed, young and virgin orthodox Catholic nun living in a convent, Wanda (Agata Kulesza) once a prestigious communist judge nicknamed “Red Wanda”, is an upper class, hard-drinking middle-aged woman who frequently engages in casual sexual relationships.

Pawlikowski placed these two protagonists which everything seems to oppose at the heart of the film and merged them into one intensely dramatic story. Ida and Wanda represent the sense of guilt permeating Polish society and its search for the right path in the post-World War II era. Although not explicitly addressed throughout the movie, the tragedy of the Holocaust and the suffering experienced under communist oppression are palpable from beginning to end.

In the opening scene, Wanda reveals that Ida is her niece, and that her Jewish parents were murdered during the German invasion of Poland. With the hope of finding their graves, the two women decide to investigate the circumstances of their death and travel across the Polish countryside.

Throughout the movie, Wanda’s guilt and shame for her judgments passed as a “bloody-handed” communist judge start to explain and account for her loose and promiscuous lifestyle. On the other hand, Ida, who spent most of her life in an isolated convent, progressively gets swept up in her aunt’s alcohol and cigarette-fuelled unhealthy lifestyle. Both find themselves at a crossroads, torn between their past commitments and individual desires.

Polish countryside from a Wartburg’s seat

Ida and Wanda are not the only ones having to live with repressed feelings of guilt, but become the spokespersons for the wholly neglected and cruel world of rural Poland, haunted by the secrets and ghosts from World War II.

The masterful depiction of the desolated Polish countryside by Pawel Pawlikowski relies in Ida on a subtle “road-movie element”, placing the two protagonists in the front seat of an iconic East-German Wartburg 311.

Dealing with the duality of human nature without portraying a purely black-and-white vision of Polish society, rural Poland is shown in all its nuances of grey: the same person who might have hidden and protected Jewish children during Nazi pogroms could have killed those same children later on if it proved necessary to protect his own family.

This paradox motif adds a striking dramatic depth to Pawlikowski’s Ida. The unique and multi-faceted relationship between the two main characters brings to the fore historical and societal questions absolutely key to understanding Polish society and highlights the tortured emotions and mindset of 1960s Poland.

Main photo credit:

By Bence Janek

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