Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate nun, visits Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her aunt, in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. Photograph courtesy of Music Box Films. 

directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Music Box Films

Ida is a rare experience, a film with an aesthetic as captivating as its narrative, each ideally suited to the other—in sum, a masterpiece. In Polish with English subtitles, Ida is only eighty minutes long, but it took film festival audiences and judges by storm.

Interviews with director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski reveal an articulate man of powerful intelligence, sprawling erudition, and strong opinion. He belongs to the impressive school of erstwhile philosophers—Terrence Malick and the Coen brothers are exemplars—who turn their analytical minds and metaphysical questions to filmmaking. Yet this small film, set in Poland, 1962, stands as the antithesis to the large questions and rich cinematography of Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Both are among the best films of the twenty-first century, and both comment on the place of religion in modern life. But if The Tree of Life is the Sistine Chapel, Ida is an engraving by Albrecht Dürer—a triumph of less-is-more.

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Pawlikowski pursued graduate studies in literature and philosophy, never went to film school, and like many beginning filmmakers cut his teeth on documentaries. He is particularly proud of his 1992 Serbian Epics, a shocking, politically contrarian exploration of the centuries-long Slavic effort to create their own nation-state. It features a sympathetic portrayal of Serbian leader Radovan Karadžic, a man who has since been branded a monster and is on trial for crimes against humanity. The sympathetic portrait drew criticism from those who might have supported Pawlikowski’s future work, and, with Ida, he demonstrates the same determination to “up” the establishment.

Indeed, Ida breaks all the rules of contemporary commercial moviemaking. Pawlikowski has lectured on his approach, which is instructive—and convincing—particularly for those who believe that film is an art that can and should break away from literature’s narrative form. He sees screenplays as second-rate literature; he does not take them to producers and on that basis negotiate a budget and set a schedule to cast and make the film. Instead he begins with a tentative and partial script that he can alter as the film takes shape. His project is to create in statu nascendi: “the filmmaker’s job is to find [the inner life of his film] or unearth it in the [filmmaking] process using their knowhow, taste, imagination and above all their sense of truth.”

For these reasons, in making Ida, Pawlikowski did without what he calls the “rhetoric” of modern cinematography: color and background music, cameras mounted on swinging booms, a camera in the sky giving us a God’s eye view, the ubiquitous handheld camera that injects immediacy and proximity, the computer tricks that make anything appear on screen. Rather than reveal every point of view, he relies on stationary cameras in almost every scene. The camera dictates the movements and interactions of the actors rather than the other way around.

Pawlikowski creates a landscape of loneliness and grief, of misery and cruelty.

Pawlikowski also chose the traditional but long discarded boxy 4:3 frame ratio. In many scenes, particularly those outdoors, we first see the actors as small figures in the left-hand corner of the screen. Then, with a slight upward tilt of the camera, the darkening sky—perhaps God, if he exists in 1962 in Poland—becomes a presence. Most scenes are clouded and dark, and the cinematography conveys both the brutal landscape of the time and the sense of unreality one experiences in dreams. Lukasz Zal, a novice cameraman, is behind these effects. Apparently he was willing to submit to Pawlikowski’s vision after the original cinematographer left soon after shooting began.

Pawlikowski tells us he wanted to recreate his own memories of the Poland of his childhood. But he has created more than that: a landscape of loneliness and grief, of misery and cruelty. Instead of the dystopias of the present, he shows us the horror that hangs like fog over post-Holocaust, postwar Poland. The combined effect of the black-and-white film and the stationary camera is of dreamlike delicacy, as though every scene was imagined as a discrete work of art. The only sound is diegetic: with little dialogue, the silence adds to the solemnity of the mise en scène. It feels like a reverie to a harsh reality.

Ida can be seen as a sequence of woodcuts and etchings that suggest not just Dürer but also Giovanni Battista Piranesi and James McNeill Whistler. Yet Pawlikowski did not set out to homage the great artists or great movies of the European past. Viewers may be reminded of Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard, but the wonder of Ida is its originality.

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In the opening scenes, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate nun, is ready to make her vow of chastity and marry Jesus. We first see her, paintbrush in hand, retouching a faded polychrome wooden statue of Christ. The convent is barren: we appreciate the cost of her renunciations. On her immobile face, as she paints and later prays, we see not the ecstasy of transcendence but a deep willingness to believe. These scenes are wordless, conveying the sacrifice and dedication of women who devote their lives to God.

The cloister’s ritual order is interrupted when the abbess tells Anna she must visit her only living relative before she can take her vows. No explanation is offered for this necessity. In a demonstration of loving Christian solidarity, we watch as her sister novitiates help her pack a small suitcase. And then Anna is off. Soon she meets Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her aunt, who informs her that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, that she is a Jewish nun. Anna’s stolid reaction allows the audience to feel and assimilate the shocking revelation.

Wanda—a hard-drinking and promiscuous magistrate, former Stalinist state prosecutor, lover of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and firm atheist—embodies everything that Anna, nèe Ida Lebenstein, has repudiated. How will these two women find common ground? Wanda looks at Anna as though she were a creature in a zoo. And Anna seems to know better than to offer her cynical aunt the comfort of the Holy Trinity. The dutiful Anna wants to visit the grave of her parents. But Wanda coldly explains to this innocent nun that there are no graves in Poland for the people who died in the Holocaust. The unlikely companions agree to visit the village home of Ida’s mother, Wanda’s sister. The only indication that Wanda’s hardened exterior has begun to soften is that she tells Anna she is beautiful like her mother was.

The middle-aged Kulesza is a well-known stage actress in Poland. With dark, dyed hair and a mobile, expressive face, she is the kind of woman you would pass on the street and not look back. Pawlikowski discovered the other lead, Trzebuchowska, after being disappointed by many other castings. A philosophy student who was spotted in a café, Trzebuchowska has wide-set eyes, blond hair, a dimple in the middle of her chin, and a singularly inexpressive face. But study that face and you may see the hint of a serious mind at work behind its seeming immobility. Some have criticized Trzebuchowska’s inexpressiveness, but that is exactly what Pawlikowski wanted.

Some may be reminded of Ingmar Bergman, but the wonder of Ida is its originality.

As the women travel, the narrative becomes a footnote to Shoah: it turns out that Ida’s parents were killed not by Nazis but by their Polish neighbors, who coveted their farm. When they reach the site, they are about to be turned away because the men of the house are not home. But seeing Anna in a nun’s habit, the wife of the man who, we will discover, killed Anna’s parents insists that Anna bless her infant. Wanda tracks down the old neighbor, near death, in the local hospital. He tells them he tried to hide the Jews in the forest. But the son is the one responsible, and to spare his father this deathbed interrogation, he confesses. Because he trusts the nun, he strikes a deal: the Jews will not reclaim their property, and in exchange he will show them where the bodies are buried and dig them up.

At the makeshift grave, we discover that Wanda had a baby boy who was murdered and buried with the others. Crouching in the grave, the Polish farmer explains he had no choice; the boy was dark and circumcised, and everyone would have known he was a Jew, so he killed the child with his ax. The young Ida, however, had blond hair and was passed on to a Catholic orphanage. Here, with these few words of self-justification, Pawlikowski gives us a portrait of the banality of evil. We see how the farmer tried to deny the horror in which he was complicit and from which he now benefits. Wanda and Anna grow closer, in shared grief, as they bear away the bones of these Godforsaken Jews.

Wanda suggests they continue across Poland to the family’s Jewish cemetery in Lublin to bury the remains where they belong. Their journey becomes a pilgrimage of mutual understanding, with tragic consequences for Wanda. Her shell of cynicism crumbles as she begins to love her niece and feel the emotions she has long denied. Vodka and men are not anodyne enough, nor is the faltering project of communism, nor her position as magistrate. She is one of the few Holocaust survivors, and now she feels the intolerable burden of the past; her future is empty and hopeless. With Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony playing loudly on her Victrola, she jumps, without warning, out of a window to her death.

The news of her aunt’s suicide brings Anna back to the city for the funeral. Prior to her death, Wanda had challenged Anna to taste the profane pleasures of the flesh before renouncing them. The long and emotional journey troubled the nun’s soul, and she hesitates before taking her vows: in Wanda’s apartment we watch as Anna takes on the identity of the lost woman. In high heels and makeup and her aunt’s sexy dress, she guzzles vodka as though it were water. After the funeral she dances with a handsome saxophone player. She allows him to make love to her—or rather have sex with her. He seems passionately in love and she only quizzical. Again her inexpressive face tells Pawlikowski’s story. “What comes next?” she asks. “We get a dog, we buy a house, and have children,” he answers. “What then?” she asks; “We have a life!” he answers.

While the young man sleeps, relishing the afterglow of sexual consummation and newfound love, we watch Anna cleanse herself, don again her nun’s habit, and hurry back to the convent. She has tried and rejected our way of life and its promise of happiness. Is it because she has discovered but cannot accept that she is Ida Lebenstein, a Jew who survived the Holocaust? Or perhaps she has rediscovered her faith in God, a refuge more encompassing than the tragic complications of human history? For the first time Pawlikowski uses a clumsy handheld camera that precedes Anna as she hurries up the road with a new sense of purpose to her sacred cloister and her spiritual marriage to Jesus.

Pawlikowski has had a lot of negative things to say about the Polish Catholic Church. An important Polish bishop read the preliminary script, turned up his nose, and banned the Catholic hierarchy from providing Pawlikowski any assistance. One wonders what the fathers of the Polish Catholic Church think of the finished film and the truth that Pawlikowski found in it. And one wonders about the ending. Does Pawlikowski want us to believe that his Jewish nun fulfills her spiritual destiny as a member of the Polish Catholic sodality, or as a lonely soul embracing the Jewish son of God?