'Ida' Is More Than a Film About the Memory of the Holocaust

Pawel Pawilkowski's acclaimed film examines the way the legacy of the Holocaust becomes incorporated into the memory of a nation.

 A scene from the Oscar-winning Holocaust film "Ida" (2013), by Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski.
Courtesy Lev Films

Ida Directed by Pawel Pawilkowski; written by Pawel Pawilkowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz; with Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik

I am ambivalent about “Ida,” Polish director Pawel Pawilkowski’s acclaimed film, which has won many prizes already, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and is likely to be an Oscar nominee – and winner – in the same category. On the one hand, I appreciate the effort to offer a minimalist, severe cinematic portrait of Poland in the early 1960s; on the other hand, something about the movie, despite its themes and plot, pushes me away.

Some might claim that this response is an intentional effect of the movie’s style; that others – such as the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, French directors Robert Bresson and Alain Cavalier, and even Ingmar Bergman in some of his films – followed a similar cinematic path, and made movies I’ve admired very much. To me, however, it seems too simple, even simplistic, to compare Pawilkowski’s film to those of Dreyer, Bresson, Cavalier, Bergman and others. For those directors, the minimalist, ascetic and severe style was not an end in itself, but rather a means of crystallizing the themes and plots of their films, so that style provided access to the depths of emotion. Pawilkowski tries to accomplish the same thing, but despite his serious intentions (which I do not question) and the intelligent screenplay he co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, he succeeds far less. “Ida” seems to relish its own style, to flaunt its own “arty” nature, in a way that makes it seem affected and at times even a bit arrogant.

Only 80 minutes long, “Ida” is shot in a square frame, like many movies of former times. The 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice who grew up in a convent. Before she can take her holy vows, the mother superior, who apparently knows something about her past, sends Anna to Lodz to meet her only relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda tells Anna that she is, in fact, Jewish; her name used to be Ida Lebenstein, and her entire family perished in the Holocaust.

Pawilkowski, who has worked in Britain and France on such English-speaking films as “My Summer of Love” and “The Woman in the Fifth,” returns in “Ida” to his native Poland, where his film stages an encounter between two very different women. Ida is a young woman without a past; her broad, open face represents her status as a blank slate inscribed with nothing beyond her complete faith in God. Wanda, by contrast, is entirely the product of her past. She is a judge, once known as “Red Wanda” for her faithful service to the Communist regime, in whose name she sent many political prisoners to their death. In the movie’s present, the memory of the Holocaust and her utter disillusionment with communism have made her a bitter, cynical woman, who drinks and smokes too much and has random sex just to pass the time.

When the two women meet and travel together to the farm where members of Ida’s family hid during the war and where they were captured, murdered and buried, each comes to absorb some of the other’s essence. For Ida, this is a first opportunity to grapple with Poland’s history – and her own; for Wanda, it is an encounter with her niece’s innocence, ignorance and stubborn religious belief.

Within this aspect of the movie, everything having to do with Wanda works better. The two women are supposed to represent the disconnection and ideological disillusionment that existed in Poland of the early 1960s. But while Wanda’s character is sketched in bold – at times too bold – melodramatic lines, Ida’s is too vague. This is intentional, of course, but it comes across as schematic. When Wanda and Ida visit a jazz club where the era’s songs are played (including hits from America and the Sanremo festival) and Ida, despite her nun’s habit, catches the eye of a charming saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), it is not hard to guess what will happen next. Ida is rather indifferent when she learns that she is Jewish, and her responses to later experiences are likewise unemotional. This obtuseness is supposed to tell us something about her; maybe it indicates an inner turmoil that she cannot quite express, because she has spent all her life so far detached from the world outside the convent and from the evolving history of her country. But it doesn’t quite work, even if the face of the actress playing Ida keeps our eyes riveted to the screen.

Unsettled reality

“Ida” is set in a physical reality that is gloomy, even bleak, on a human and moral level. The black-and-white cinematography and square frame are supposed to highlight this quality, but the beauty of the shots, and of the visual design in general, actually undermines the emphasis without generating any kind of meaningful dialectic. The composition and overall appearance of the film demand too much attention – for example, when Pawilkowski locates the characters’ faces at the bottom of the frame and piles up cloudy skies above them. If the plot is a bit schematic, both in what it tells us and in what it chooses to conceal, so is the way the film crafts its own conspicuous artistic essence.

Through the design and compositions, Pawilkowski is trying to convey the sense of an unsettled reality; the picture often tells us more than the story. This is occasionally one of the movie’s virtues, because it allows the present unfolding before us to feel like an instant memory. What adds to this effect is the evocation of many Polish films made in the 1960s through the choice of style, especially the square frame. But does this allusion contain a significant and relevant historical comment, or is it only an affectation? The power of the image is palpable in “Ida” – for example, in some of the best scenes, when Wanda and Ida meet the Poles on whose farm the Lebenstein family hid, and their faces say more than any information they might have given the two heroines. Still, it all feels a bit too calculated at times.

“Ida” is not a film about the memory of the Holocaust – or at least, it is not only about that. Rather, it examines the way the Holocaust’s memory becomes incorporated into the memory of a nation. If I have certain reservations about the film, it may be because I respect this goal, whose incomplete fulfillment therefore disappointed me.

“Ida” is certainly a movie worth seeing, but it is also a problematic picture because of the way in which it stylizes memory and strives for a simplicity that becomes, instead, a kind of ostentation. It therefore seems to me a film that is too easy to admire. Given the seriousness of its intention, this is a work that should require serious confrontation, not a facile response to its obvious artiness. But the same high artistic ambition is what makes me unable to have an unequivocal appreciation of its value.