Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida has rightly garnered plaudits and acclaim wherever it has been shown: its black-and-white camerawork, empty spaces and unhurried pace create an extraordinarily watchable, but eerie picture of decay and neglect.
Considering aesthetics would seem to be repugnant when it comes to the representation of the Holocaust, or of totalitarian communism. But Pawlikowski impresses in the way his cinematic solutions serve the historical and philosophical agenda of the film. The silences and sparse dialogue underline the unsaid more than the said, and the artistic design emphasises flaky, peeling exteriors that have not been retouched or renovated for 20 years.
All this underscores the overarching concerns of the film: the presence of the past, the war’s long shadow, the overweening significance of recent history. The Nazi occupation of Poland and the spectre of the Holocaust are incessantly invoked. The same aesthetic technique in Pawlikowski’s earlier films seemed philosophical. It intimated alienation, or the difficulty of communication. But here it becomes a way of exploring the wounds of history; that which is too painful to recall.
The film opens with Catholic nuns. This is appropriate, given how closely entwined nationalism and Catholicism are in Poland. But even at this epicentre of Polish identity, we find a character, Ida, a novice about to take her vows, who discovers at the outset of the film her repressed past: she was born a Jew, Ida Lebenstein, and sent to the priory as an orphaned child. As such, she incarnates a troubling facet of Polish identity: the 1,000-year Jewish presence in Poland, the most significant site of European Jewry, brutally stamped out in the Holocaust. As she is reunited with her aunt, Wanda Gruz, a judge and former state prosecutor, Ida begins to attempt to reconstruct her Jewish past, to understand what became of her family.
This very process is incredibly difficult – and it is here that Pawlikowski’s sensitivity to silences and the unsayable become particularly appropriate. No one wants to talk to Ida and Wanda, or tell them what happened, and in many cases they dare not even ask. Here they confront post-war Poland’s oppressively anti-Semitic atmosphere, where, as historian Jan Gross has shown, even those who had helped Jews were not keen to be identified as having done so. To say that you had helped save a Jewish child during the war was not something rewarded, but had unpleasant consequences.
Eventually, through Wanda’s dogged persistence, they get some answers from the Polish family with whom Ida and her family had been left in hiding during the war. The dying father reveals little, but the son, Feliks, who now lives in what was once Ida’s family’s house, agrees to show where the family are buried – provided Wanda and Ida do not attempt to recover their property. Feliks takes them to the woods, digs a hole and they recover the bones of Ida’s family, including her infant cousin, Wanda’s son.
When Ida asks why she is not among the dead, Feliks reveals that it was he who killed them: while Ida could pass as a gentile, the boy could not, because he was “dark”, and circumcised. The implication is that he killed them for fear that he and his family might be discovered by the Nazis to be hiding Jews, and themselves be killed. But there is so much left unsaid here that the motivations for murder are left obscure. An understanding of Polish wartime history might equally push us towards explaining the murder through Polish anti-Semitism. The perception that Jews had money, and that killing them would enable the murderers to acquire their property, is a motive that is hinted at too.
After the war
The aunt, Wanda, is a member of the Party whose career peaked when she was a prosecutor in the early 50s, in the Stalin era, when the Soviet-imposed regime reluctantly permitted Jews to occupy positions of power because they were among the most loyal and able Communists. The early 1960s, when the film is set, was a period, post-Stalin, in which there was something of a rapprochement with the Polish nationalist sentiment. Jews were progressively pushed from positions of power in the Polish Communist Party and wider society; implicitly permitted, even encouraged, to emigrate.
The portrayal of Wanda hints at a formerly sincere Communist, possibly involved with the then statistically insignificant Communist resistance during the war. She has become disillusioned with the course of Socialist Poland and taken to drink and casual love affairs to fill the moral void. The reasons for her ultimate suicide, while sparked by despair at Ida’s continued resolve to become a nun, lie ultimately in the crushing of her hopes for a Communist Poland, subject to a rising tide of anti-Semitism that was progressively undermining her own position. Jews were often blamed for Stalinist excesses in the period up to 1953.
This was a period in which, following the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, there were a number of prosecutions of Nazi war criminals in Eastern Europe and Germany. This was a world beginning to learn to articulate the full extent of the horror of the Holocaust. In recent times, as visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum will know, Poland has been confronting this past with increasing candour.
Pawlikowski addresses the issue of Poland’s repression in part through the film’s form, by using the technique of the Polish School, who in the 1960s made some very guarded attempts to hint at the truth of the occupation: that Poles rarely aided their Jewish neighbours and sometimes were complicit in their annihilation. In doing so, Pawlikowski has staged quite a coup. He has succeeded in making a film about repression, sexual and political, about memory and Polish identity. Most crucially, perhaps, it is a film about the Holocaust that doesn’t feature the Nazis.