FILM REVIEW: Oscar win for "Ida" reopens old wounds in Poland

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2015

Jo Harper in Warsaw -


Ida Polish filmFilm director Pawel Pawlikowski has succeeded where the big guns of Polish cinema all failed. His film "Ida" won best non-English language film at this year’s Oscars, while illustrious names such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland were never Oscar winners. But no sooner had the celebrations ended than the accusations of anti-Polonism started to fly – again.

Pawlikowski takes us in "Ida" to a world that is now gone but still causes pain. A month after the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, and amid continuing Polish complexes about the use of language, especially the Western press’ use of the term “Polish concentration camps”, the Oscar win reopens old wounds. For some it is a Hollywood version of Polish history, a Hollywood largely built by Polish Jews. In this narrative, Polish sensitivities, as usual, come second.

Criticisms from right-wing and nationalist groups include the fact that the director is actually British, having moved to the UK with his mum as a 14 year old in 1971. “Made by Jews for Jews. We don’t want this Oscar,” a right-wing news service Polonia Christiana wrote. A similar news outlet, Wirtualna Polonia, called the film “a self-harming portrait of Poland.”

The Polish Anti-Defamation League (Reduta Dobrego Imienia) has launched a petition against the movie, addressed to the state-funded Polish Film Institute, which financed it. “The viewer is left with no understanding of history and may leave the film with the idea that the blame for the Holocaust lies with Poles,” the RDI writes. It demands that information be added to the beginning of the film, making clear that Poland was under German occupation from 1939-45 and that hiding Jews was a death-penalty offence during that period. Over 29,000 people have signed the RDI’s petition.


"Ida", a Polish-Danish co-production about a young nun in 1962, communist-era Poland who discovers that her Polish-Jewish family was murdered during the war by their Polish-Catholic neighbours during the Nazi occupation, is many things rolled into one. 

It is at one and the same time a road movie, a rites-of-passage movie, a study of loneliness and tradition, as well as being – quite unavoidably – also a movie about the Holocaust, and in particular Poland's often confused and confusing role in it.

There have been a spate of Polish films about the war examining Poles’ part in the Holocaust and its aftermath. The Dutch 2010 movie "In Darkness" takes us to the sewers of war-time Lviv, then in occupied Poland, with Jews being hidden from Nazis by a Polish sewer worker. Borys Lankosz’s recent film, 'A Grain of Truth', tells a similar story of Polish-Jewish relations, while Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s 2012 film "Aftermath" tackles Polish-Jewish relations head on.

Thus "Ida" steps into a contested field. The film speaks of ancient relations played out in Polish lands over a millennium, Judaism and Christianity, a dialogue apparently ended by the war and reopened since 1989.

The examination of Catholic Poland’s relationship with Polish Jews in particular during the war started in 1999 with the publication of a book about a massacre of Jews at a small town in north-east Poland, Jedwabne, by US academic Jan Gross. His book, "Neighbours", reopened old debates and questioned above all the overriding Polish narrative of martyrdom and non-culpability in the Holocaust. The Museum of Polish Jewish History, which recently opened in Warsaw, also touches issues that had been buried for many years.

Set against a slice of nostalgia for the Polish People's Republic and a John Coltrane jazz score, Pawlikowski tells an intimate story. There is a touch of Roman Polanski’s "Knife in Water" (1961) about it with its black and white stylish cinematography, small cast and jazz score, high and low games, semantic and emotional.

The eponymous Ida is a novice nun who discovers her Jewish roots with the help of an aunt, Wanda Gruz, a character based on Helena Wolinska-Brus, a Stalinist-era prosecutor and a communist resistance fighter. "Red Wanda" had sent "men to their deaths" she tells us.

“Wanda is a tragic character and different emotions are pulling her apart,” Agata Kulesza, who plays Wanda in the film, says. “I had to accept the fact that there were real women – as in this case – who did evil things, but who could also remain charismatic and very easy to relate to. In preparation I got myself acquainted with the history of Julia Brystygier [an officer in the People’s Republic of Poland whose brutal practices gave her the nickname Bloody Luna] and Pawel [Pawlikowski] told me about Helena Wolinska-Brus, who was an attorney, as is my character, and who in real life did a lot of harm... but all in all what we see is this solitude and longing for a human connection.”

Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida, meanwhile had never had any acting training. She was discovered by a friend of Pawlikowski's, who saw her sitting in a cafe in Warsaw reading a book.

“Pawel Pawlikowski was looking for Ida for a couple of months. I was invited into the project in an unusual way. Another Polish film director Malgorzata Szumowska spotted me in a Warsaw cafe, apparently took my picture and sent it to him. When he responded that he would be interested she left her details for me with the barista. After that it all moved very quickly,” Trzebuchowska says. 


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