Produced by Canal + Polska
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Distributed by Music Box Films
The personal is the political: This 1960’s catchphrase defiantly bandied by leftists and feminists has always seemed to me childishly peevish. It’s as if, in a fit of collective pique, those on the left had been stamping their feet, demanding that they be taken seriously—and right away. Everyone else would just have to yield to the needs of the movement. Or else! It was the slogan of entitled brats, I had concluded. Watching Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida, however, I confess the overworked expression took on an undeniable cogency, despite its origin.
I should quickly add that Pawlikowski, a Pole by birth living in London since his adolescence, doesn’t have any of his characters utter this peculiarly American slogan in his quietly shocking narrative. It would have been supererogatory to do so. His story is set in Soviet-dominated Poland, where the personal had been engulfed by the political. Even the film’s protagonist, a young convent novice who is seemingly as removed from the world as could be imagined, ultimately makes contact with the brutal politics of the European 20th century. The young woman—a girl, really—is named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska). She’s been reared from infancy in the convent, and now, at 18, she is preparing to make her final vows. But before she can do so, the outer world suddenly steps in and forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.
The convent’s mother superior unexpectedly orders her to visit an aunt she never knew she had. At first, Anna softly demurs, but, trained to obedience, she soon complies. Meeting her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) could hardly be more fateful. Anna learns that she is not Anna after all but Ida, daughter of a Jewish family who, with the exception of Wanda and herself, had been killed during the German occupation. They weren’t the victims of Nazi soldiers but of Christian Poles who had been hiding them until they realized they might themselves be killed, should the Germans discover their kindness. Such are the politics of self-interest at history’s bloodier moments.
Deemed too young to be sacrificed to expediency Anna was given to the convent. Wanda, her mother’s younger sister, had already left the family to join the communist resistance. After the war, Wanda joined Poland’s communist regime, rising to the position of prosecutorial state attorney, and sometimes used her power to take personal as well as political revenge on Christian Poles suspected of collaboration with the Nazis. Disgusted by Anna’s happenstance Christianity—she refers scornfully to her niece as a Jewish nun—Wanda makes a point of telling the girl that, in the past, she had sentenced some Christians to death. Were they all guilty of capital crimes? Wanda doesn’t say, and we do not find out.
Now embittered by the sham workers’ paradise Poland has become, Wanda has come to doubt the ethics of her earlier politics. As recent studies, especially Timothy Snyder’s deeply unsettling Bloodlands, have concluded, angry Jews used their positions in the Communist Party to settle scores, real and imagined, after the war. As Jewish innocents had been slaughtered, so were blameless Christians—and in greater numbers. Snyder uncovers the wanton murder of over 14 million Jews, Christians, and others (excluding combatants), conducted by both Nazis and communists through the 1930’s and 40’s in the swath of Europe between Germany and Russia. All Wanda has to show for her personal participation in this politics of retribution is a conviction that she’s wasted her life. Complicit in a murderous ideology, she had willingly allowed the personal to become the political and is now sickened by that choice.
Wanda doesn’t say so, but you get the sense that she has concluded that the aristocracy of earlier centuries would be preferable to the dour, joyless existence her socialist country now enjoys. She’s not unwilling to wield something like aristocratic arrogance when dealing with members of the lower classes. Whenever she doesn’t get her way, she reminds underlings of her position in the communist government in much the same way a noble might wield his title in an earlier age.
Although the film is named for Anna’s discovered name, it’s as much about Wanda—or, rather, the relationship between the two women. They compose a study in opposites. While Ida seems at first diffident to a fault, Wanda seems always about to boil over. Of her niece’s vow of chastity, Wanda cruelly asks how it could be a sacrifice. As a virgin, she won’t know what she’s giving up. Ida doesn’t rise to the bait. Her answer resides in her calm stoicism. It’s clear she doesn’t find Wanda’s enjoyments—promiscuous sex abetted by steady drinking—all that compelling.
Slowly, Wanda softens in the light of Ida’s innocence. She recognizes her sister in her guileless niece. After she shows Ida an album of family photographs, she finds herself agreeing to help the girl find her parents’ home. What they discover on their journey into the past is troubling but also cathartic for both of them.
Much of the film’s power resides in the women’s faces. Ida’s is an innocent blank. She’s beautiful, but without discernible character to make her interesting. Wanda, on the other hand, is all too experienced. Her cheeks are etched, her forehead perpetually furrowed. Her face twists with sneers, scowls, and disgust, revealing that she finds the world devoid of both surprise and delight. Only when Ida shows up do we learn that Wanda also has a lovely smile. Of course, the emotions Ida visits on Wanda aren’t all delightful. Some are quite painful, but, joyful or painful, they’re genuine, not, as so much of her recent life has been, clouded with drink and casual lust. For her part, Ida gains from her aunt the experience she’ll need to see her future course with greater clarity.
Pawlikowski often gives the look of his black-and-white film a pallid sameness. Scenes are shot against snowy landscapes under overcast skies. Everything runs into everything else. It’s as if the scenery itself were refusing to reveal delineations, either geographic or moral. There’s only the barely undifferentiated land and sky against which human figures try to find their way in a wilderness of uncertainty. Unspeakable things have happened in this landscape, but now everything has turned mute under a blanket of snow. In contrast, the film’s compositions speak. Pawlikowski has repeatedly placed his actresses in the bottom left of his frame under a dark, vacant space that seems to weigh on them portentously, as if to ask whether they will be able to assert their personalities against the political silent night that has fallen. An answer to this question may be found in a late scene. Ida is sitting in the convent’s refectory with other postulants and older nuns. She looks round at the women and lets out an abrupt little laugh that startles the postulants and brings reproving glances from the nuns. It’s about as subdued a rebellion as one could imagine, but it’s enough to indicate that Ida is no longer the innocent girl she was at the beginning. She’s been invaded by experience. The question becomes this: Will she allow that experience to reduce her personality to an ideological abstraction, or will she find the strength to shape her own life?