Pawel Pawlikowski’s IDA at Theater Image Forum – Shibuya


From acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) comes Ida, a moving and intimate drama about a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who, on the verge of taking her vows, makes a shocking discovery about her past. 

IDA will begin playing at Image Forum Theater at Shibuya from August 2, 2014.

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writer: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Cinematography: Ryszard Lenczewski, Lukasz Zal

Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna
Agata Kulesza as Wanda
Joanna Kulig as Singer
Dawid Ogrodnik as Musician
Adam Szyszkowski as Feliks Skiba
Jerzy Trela as Szymon Skiba
Artur Janusiak as Militia Man

(Poland) An Opus Film, Phoenix Film production in association with Portobello Pictures in coproduction with Canal Plus Poland, Phoenix Film Poland. (International sales: Fandango Portobello, Copenhagen.) Produced by Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska. Coproducer, Christian Falkenberg Husum.

Editor, Jaroslaw Kaminski; production designers, Katarzyna Sobanska, Marcel Slawinski; costume designer, Aleksandra Staszko; Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen; supervising sound editor, Claus Lynge; re-recording mixers, Lynge, Andreas Kongsgaard; visual effects, Stage 2; line producer, Magdalena Malisz; associate producer, Sofie Wanting Hassing.


IDA Roger
May 2, 2014 Godfrey Cheshire

Debuted earlier this year at Lincoln Center and now on a national tour, the 21-film series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” bears stunning testament to the brilliance of not only one especially fecund national cinema but an entire era of moviemaking—call it the golden age of the art film. As Martin Scorsese, who curated the series and whose Film Foundation provided its pristine digital restorations, has remarked, the period it covers (roughly the ‘50s through the ‘70s) was one of extraordinary accomplishments in many parts of the cinematic world, a high-water mark that grows ever more dazzling in retrospect.

Set in the Poland of 1962 and composed of austerely gorgeous black and white images, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” could fit right into the “Masterpieces” series, evoking as it does films ranging from Andrzej Wajda’s “Innocent Sorcerers” to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s “Mother Joan of the Angels” (both 1960). But that’s not to suggest it’s a throwback or an exercise in cinematic nostalgia. Riveting, original and breathtakingly accomplished on every level, “Ida” would be a masterpiece in any era, in any country.

Somewhat ironically, director and co-writer Pawlikowski can’t be considered a Polish filmmaker in any strict sense. Though born in Poland, he grew up in Great Britain and has done most of his work there (his previous films include “My Summer of Love” and “Last Resort”). “Ida” represents a return home for the filmmaker, one that he has said draws on the memories, sights and sounds of his childhood.

That retrospective, and somewhat impressionistic, viewpoint mirrors the film’s own. Though set in the ’60s, the era of Communist rule and modernization, the story scripted by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz looks backward in time. Given that it starts out in a convent that seems like it hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, you might say that the film’s perspective suggests a vast expanse of Polish history. But its main focus is closer to hand: the country’s occupation by the Nazis (a historical passage that is resonantly evoked but never seen or directly referred to).

Anna (Agata Trzebokowska) is an 18-year-old orphan who was raised in that convent and is preparing to take her vows when her Mother Superior insists that first she meet her one known relative. That is an aunt, Wanda (Agneta Kulesza), a former prosecutor with a high Communist Party rank whose dissolute life of smoking, drinking and bedding men stands in stark contrast to the ascetic existence of her sheltered niece. But Anna has more to be shocked about when Wanda tells her that her real name is Ida (pronounced Eeda), that she is Jewish and that her parents were killed during World War II.

This revelation triggers a journey in which aunt and niece drive back to the village of Anna’s parents in an effort to discover how they died and where they were buried. Although this quest is central to the narrative, “Ida” is anything but plot-driven. It’s a film of moments, observations and moods, with a lyrical unfolding that recalls such atmospheric monochrome road movies as Wim Wenders’ “Kings of the Road.” And when the two voyagers pick up a hitchhiking tenor saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) and end up watching his gigs, the music of John Coltrane and similar artists adds an engrossing aural dimension to the odyssey.

Few recent films can claim a visual approach as striking as that which cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski give “Ida.” Filmed in the unusual, boxy aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and most often deployed in static long shots, the film’s images sometimes suggest Vermeer lighting with the color taken away, and the compositions manage to seem at once classical and off-handed, with the subjects often located in the screen’s two bottom quadrants. As in Bresson, the effect is to draw the viewer’s eye into the beauty of the image while simultaneously maintaining a contemplative distance from the drama.

Pawlikoski and Lenkiewicz’s scripting proves similarly lapidarian. Besides its look, “Ida” most recalls the manner of bygone art films in the modernist spareness and thoroughgoing obliqueness of its writing. Very little is stated directly; instead, we glean things from casual remarks and subtle suggestions. Somehow, this technique of inference makes the film’s eventual revelations feel both more integral and more powerful.

Because revelations do come, despite the quest’s languorous rhythms, and they touch on arguably the darkest and most troubling chapter in modern Poland’s history. What happened to Anna’s parents? Most films that approach this horrific arena envision jackbooted armies and vast industrial execution sites. But in Poland in the ’40s, as in Cambodia in the ’70s and Rwanda in the ’90s, evil’s authors could be one’s friends and neighbors, and simple farm implements its instruments. In touching on this reality, “Ida” adds something to a subject that sometimes seems to have lost the ability to disturb us as it should in movies.

Besides this historical acuity, the film gives us a fascinating pair of matched archetypes in its main characters, which are realized in two exquisite performances. As the aspiring nun who’s suddenly tossed into the ugliness of the world, newcomer Agata Trzebokowska proves a poised icon of luminous quietude and awakened curiosity, discovering herself as she painfully uncovers her past. And as the embittered, nihilistic “Red Wanda,” a woman driven both by the horrors inflicted on her and those she’s inflicted on others, veteran Polish actress Agneta Kulesza creates the astonishing impression that some of history’s most wrenching conflicts are being played out in a single human soul. Like much about “Ida,” these actresses’ work not only pays homage to masterpieces of the past but revivifies current cinema in doing so.

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The New York Times
May 1, 2014 A. O. Scott
An Innocent Awakened
‘Ida,’ About an Excavation of Truth in Postwar Poland

Though it takes place in Poland in 1962 — a weary, disenchanted country grinding along under gray, post-Stalinist skies — Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” has some of the structure and feeling of an ancient folk tale. It concerns an orphan who must make her way through a haunted, threatening landscape, protected only by her own good sense and a powerful, not entirely trustworthy companion.

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice a few days from taking her vows in the convent that has been her only home since infancy when she learns of the existence of a previously unknown aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza). If this were actually a fairy tale, Wanda might be both fairy godmother and wicked witch. A former state prosecutor, she boasts grimly of her role in the political show trials of the early 1950s, when Poland’s Communist government used judicial terror (among other methods) to consolidate its power and eliminate its enemies.

A decade later, she is still part of the political elite, though whatever zealotry she might once have had has long since been replaced by cynicism. Chain-smoking and drinking heavily, pursuing one-night stands more out of habit than desire, she is in every way the opposite of her unworldly, pious niece. But Wanda does see a family resemblance and also has a startling piece of news, delivered with a wry, bitter smile as Ida, with her coif and crucifix, sits at the kitchen table: “You’re Jewish.”

This is not a joke — and there is nothing funny about the wartime fate of Poland’s Jews, including Ida’s parents — but “Ida” and its characters are alert to the absurdities of Polish history, as well as its abundant horrors. Mr. Pawlikowski, a Polish-born writer and director who has spent most of his career in England, has reached into his country’s past and grabbed hold of a handful of nettles. “Ida” is a breathtakingly concise film — just 80 minutes long — with a clear, simple narrative line. But within its relatively brief duration and its narrow black-and-white frames, the movie somehow contains a cosmos of guilt, violence and pain. Its intimate drama unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland’s endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect.

Ida and Wanda set out to discover what happened to Ida’s parents, a quest that turns “Ida” into both a road movie and a detective story. They encounter priests and peasants, provincial officials and a saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) whose advanced musical taste (as well as his attraction to Ida, in spite of her habit) provides a hint of youthful ’60s spirit amid the gloom and bad memories.

Mr. Pawlikowski, who started out making documentaries and whose previous fictional features include “Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love” and “The Woman in the Fifth,” can be a wonderfully lucid storyteller. “Ida” is as compact and precise as a novella, a sequence of short, emphatic scenes that reveal the essence of the characters without simplifying them. Having set up an obvious contrast between Wanda and Ida — atheist and believer; woman of the world and sheltered child; sensualist and saint — the film proceeds to complicate each woman’s idea of herself and the other. Their black-and-white conceptions of the world turn grayer by the hour.

This is almost literally true, thanks to Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s beautifully misty, piercingly sharp monochrome cinematography. The look of “Ida” — images captured by a mostly stationary camera in the boxy frame associated with old movies — serves an obvious period function. What you are watching could virtually have been made in 1962. (The Polish countryside seems to have cooperated by not changing too much in the decades since.) Until the very end, the audience never hears music unless the people on screen hear it, too, and many of the scenes — at once austere and charged with an intensity that verges on the metaphysical — owe an evident debt to ’60s cinema heroes like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson.

But “Ida” is hardly an exercise in antiquarian pastiche. It is rather an excavation of truths that remain, 70 years after the Holocaust and a quarter-century after the collapse of Communism, only partially disinterred. And it is, above all, about the spiritual and moral condition of the women, who, between them, occupy nearly every second of this film.

Mr. Pawlikowski’s style of shooting might be described as sympathetically objective. His camera maintains its distance, and he never presumes access to the inner lives of his characters. He keeps them low in the frame, with unusually ample space above their heads, creating a kind of cathedral effect. Ida and Wanda can seem small and alone, lost in a vast and empty universe. But their surroundings often achieve a quiet grandeur, an intimation of divine presence.

There is an implicit argument here between faith and materialism, one that is resolved with wit, conviction and generosity of spirit. Mr. Pawlikowski has made one of the finest European films (and one of most insightful films about Europe, past and present) in recent memory.

ut the accomplishment is hardly his alone: “Ida” belongs equally — and on the screen, pre-eminently — to the two Agatas. Ms. Kulesza is a poised and disciplined professional, able to show us both Wanda’s ruthless self-control and its limits. Ms. Trzebuchowska, a student with little previous acting experience, is a natural screen presence and also an enigmatic one. Ida starts out, for the audience and perhaps herself, as an empty vessel, with little knowledge or experience of the world. To watch her respond to it is to perceive the activation of intelligence and the awakening of wisdom. I can’t imagine anything more thrilling.

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May 27, 2014 David Denby

We are so used to constant movement and compulsive cutting in American movies that the stillness of the great new Polish film “Ida” comes as something of a shock. I can’t recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture; from the beginning, I was thrown into a state of awe by the movie’s fervent austerity. Friends have reported similar reactions: if not awe, then at least extreme concentration and satisfaction. This compact masterpiece has the curt definition and the finality of a reckoning—a reckoning in which anger and mourning blend together. The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, left Poland years ago, for England, where he linked up with the English-born playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. After making documentaries for British television, Pawlikowski began directing features in English, including “My Summer of Love” (2004), with Emily Blunt, then unknown, and “The Woman in the Fifth” (2012), with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. “Ida” is a charged, bitter return. Set in 1961, during the Stalinist dictatorship, the movie pushes still further into the past; almost every element in the story evokes the war years and their aftermath. The filmmakers have confronted a birthplace never forgiven but also never abandoned.

In a majestic convent, an orphaned young woman—a novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska)—is ordered by her Mother Superior to visit her aunt in Lodz before she takes orders. A beautiful eighteen-year-old with a broad Slavic face, a composed, devotional manner, and a tantalizing dimple, the girl has never left the convent before and knows nothing of her family. In Lodz, wearing her habit, Anna enters the apartment of a forty-five-ish woman, who is puffing on a cigarette and waiting for the guy she picked up the night before to leave. A minor state judge and Communist Party member, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) tells her niece that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that she’s Jewish—a “Jewish nun,” she says. Abrupt and dismissive, Wanda enjoys attacking the girl’s ignorance. But Wanda has mysteries of her own and scores to settle: Ida’s mother was her beloved sister. The two agree to go to the village in which the parents were hidden by Christians and then betrayed—the village where Wanda grew up.

“Ida” becomes both an investigation of sorts and an intermittent road movie, featuring a dialectically opposed odd couple—Catholic and Communist, innocent girl and hard-living political intellectual, lover (of Christ) and hater (of the Polish past). Yet neither is a type, and what happens to each has to be understood as both an individual’s fate and a Polish fate. Ida’s faith and disciplined simplicity will be jostled by experience, and Wanda will be tested, too, as her own buried sorrows come back to life. Sardonic comedy lurks within the strange pairing. At first, Wanda can’t stop taunting Ida’s indifference to sex, and, about the village, she says, “What if you go there and discover that there is no God?” Yet Pawlikowski doesn’t favor one point of view over the other: the two women are equal in their isolation and their need to pull together the shards of identity in a country that has been almost entirely broken.

Between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost a fifth of its population, including three million Jews. In the two years after the war, Communists took over the government under the eyes of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the N.K.V.D. Many Poles who were prominent in resisting the Nazis were accused of preposterous crimes; the independent-minded were shot or hanged. In the movie, none of this is stated, but all of it is built, so to speak, into the atmosphere: the country feels dead, the population sparse, the mood of ordinary conversations constrained by the sure knowledge that many who survived have committed acts of betrayal or indulged willful ignorance.

How can you capture a nation’s spirit by telling a singular story? By making every shot as definitive as an icon. “I’m not emotionally excited by the power of cinema’s tricks anymore,” Pawlikowski has said. The director and his fledgling cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, shot the movie in hard-focus black and white; they have produced images so distinct and powerful that they sharpen our senses. “Ida” might be called static were it not for the currents of emotion from shot to shot, which electrify the women’s relation to each other throughout. Clearing away clutter, Pawlikowski almost never moves the camera; many of the scenes are just long-lasting shots, fed by a single light source that often puts the faces in partial shadow (what we understand of these two women will always be limited). Sometimes the figures are positioned at the bottom of the frame, with enormous gray Polish skies above them, as if the entire burden of a cursed country weighed on its people. Both beautiful and oppressive, the bleakness of the landscape in winter suggests something uncanny in the air, as if we were watching a horror film without ghouls.

One can trace possible influences—Carl Theodor Dreyer, very likely, and Robert Bresson, and European art films from the sixties and early seventies like François Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” and also Polish movies made in the period in which “Ida” is set. But I can’t recall anything major that looks quite like this movie. Pawlikowski is not after commonplace realism but something you would have to call minimal realism, in which the paring away of cinematic junk makes our attention to what remains almost rapt: the clinking of the nuns’ spoons at a silent convent dinner, some gentle country sounds, the transfixing boredom of long drives through the flat landscape. Yet there’s one significant sign of life: in a provincial hotel ballroom, young musicians play Western-style Polish pop and American jazz. A handsome young saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), who loves Coltrane, takes a respectful but persistent interest in Ida. The jazz, with its breaking patterns, suggests a possible opening to the West, an eventual end to Stalinist drabness, a hint of the very different Poland of 2014.

Fans of the movie have been debating who is the more interesting woman: promiscuous, alcoholic Wanda or faith-endowed Ida. On first viewing, Wanda struck me as one of the great movie characters in recent years. Agata Kulesza, a veteran Polish stage and movie actress, has short black hair, dark eyes, and an almost comically intense frown; her stare could shear the fender off a car. Earlier in her life, Wanda was a player—“the Red Wanda,” a Stalinist state prosecutor who sent “enemies of the people” to their death for the good of the revolution. As she questions peasants in her town about their acts at the end of the war, she’s both a Jewish avenger and a woman who has her own guilt to bear. Ida can’t possibly understand, but Wanda tells her of her past in brief fragments, and Kulesza does more with those fragments—adding a gesture, a pause—than anyone since Greta Garbo, who always implied much more than she said.

Without too much trouble, we can create a past for this brilliant woman. She was a member of the Young Communist League in the thirties; she escaped the Nazis by going underground and fighting in the resistance and emerged in 1947 as a true believer. It is well known that some of the Jews who survived the Nazis (often by fleeing to Moscow) entered the state service in the secret police, which, to put it mildly, was not a popular move among Polish anti-Communists (or among Polish anti-Semites, either). Wanda, we gather, was smarter than many of the others, but by 1961 she has lost her faith. Her world was not born again in revolution; it suffered a long, debilitating, and shameful aftermath to the war. Red Wanda has been twice betrayed—by the slaughter of the Jews and Polish anti-Semitism, and then by Stalinism, which she enabled. By 1961, very little keeps her going—a good apartment, surviving instincts of command, a few acid jokes, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, booze, and sexual hunger. She’s intensely likable, a tough woman too clear-headed to lie about anything, especially to herself. “Ida” may be a small story of two particular women seeking identity, but Wanda, we can’t help thinking, is Polish history, both grieved over and unredeemed.

At first glance, Ida is not as interesting—or, rather, she’s guarded, even opaque. When Wanda tells her she’s Jewish, Agata Trzebuchowska stares back, unblinking, unresponsive. Ida has nothing in her head that she can connect to Wanda’s revelations, and, for a long time, she looks at the world evenly, steadily, without much emotion. Her lustrous hair covered, her face framed by a hood, Trzebuchowska has a preternatural calm and self-sufficiency, so it’s amusing to hear that this first-time actress is actually a feminist and hipster discovered in a Warsaw café by a director friend of Pawlikowski’s. She didn’t particularly want the part; Pawlikowski, who had auditioned many young women without finding anyone he liked, had to argue her into it. The results are mixed: we get an extraordinary-looking woman, but we miss the skill of a trained actress. Trzebuchowska can’t suggest what’s churning around inside Ida, yet her opacity must be what Pawlikowski wanted, and it has its uses: it keeps mystery alive. Will Ida, exposed to the world in all its bewildering complication, maintain her faith and her desire to be a nun, or will she accept herself as a Jew? Back in the convent for a while, she prostrates herself on the stone floor, apologizing for sins that she hasn’t committed.

“Ida” is only eighty minutes long, but Pawlikowski takes his time. As the two women question farmers and townspeople in Wanda’s old village, they stop to talk things over, fight each other, or just stare silently. The investigation is urgent emotionally yet desultory in action, as such quests are in life, and the relation between the two, established and strengthened by the strategic positioning within the frame, keeps shifting, evolving, reaching a kind of emotional finality. Pawlikowski must have stripped away dialogue, too, since not much is stated: what we infer is what ultimately matters. Concentrated and expansive at the same time, “Ida” keeps the audience working hard, gathering clues, trying not to come to conclusions too quickly. As David Thomson put it in The New Republic, the movie “[dares] to omit essential actions because they have been delivered indirectly.” The violence, after all, was long in the past. What matters in 1961 (and now) is the attitudes of those who committed or suffered crimes. Without giving up judgment, the filmmakers establish that during the war, everyone in Poland was in trouble. Acknowledgment, not revenge, is the movie’s driving force.

Pawlikowski has complained about critics who see the movie solely as a meditation on the Holocaust or Poland, and, of course, he’s partially right, since “Ida” is certainly a story of identity; it’s certainly a spiritual journey, too. His irritation may be caused by a certain hostility in Poland to an exiled filmmaker who returns bristling with ideas about the country. (Pawlikowski may want to work there again, and needs to sweeten the atmosphere.) Whatever he says, he’s made a movie that breathes history in every frame, and his annoyance reminds me of D. H. Lawrence’s remark, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” All right, then: again and again, “Ida” asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.

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May 1. 2014 Steve Dollar
How the Director of ‘Ida’ Turned Polish History Into Compelling Drama

Although its motivating narrative element involves a reconciliation with souls lost in the Holocaust, one of the most appealing aspects of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is that it never feels narrowed or overwhelmed by so specific or loaded a historical impulse. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t embrace a historical moment. Indeed, the film is an effort to recapture a time and place – Warsaw, 1962 – that the director can only claim first-hand through childhood memories.

The film’s austere yet richly textured black-and-white recalls the snapshots from the Pawlikowski’s own family photo album, although a more cinematic reference would be Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light,” also reflected in a shared theme in which religious faith is tested against a more existentialist worldview. Born in 1957, the filmmaker would have been 5 when the events in “Ida” transpire, but in conversation at the Sundance Film Festival this January he explained how the script, co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, resonates closely with his own story.

The premise of “Ida” brings together two woman who, on the surface, could not be more different. Wanda (Agata Kulesza, best-known for her work on the Polish stage) is a dissolute judge and former prosecutor whose status has fallen with the decline of Stalinism. The camera catches her at an expressionistic tilt as she stumbles drunkenly through one-night stands with an attitude of stoic self-negation. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, who previously had not appeared on film), a novice nun who has turned 18 and is about to take her vows, leaves the convent where she was raised as an orphan to meet Wanda, her aunt, who breaks the news to her innocent niece that her real name is Ida, that she is a Jew and that her parents were killed during World War II. From there, they begin a journey. Ostensibly, it is to find the place where the bodies have been buried, and cast an eye on the culpable parties, but the odyssey also provides the occasion for the women to look for themselves in the mirror of each others’ psyches as Poland at last began to loosen its collar with the dawn of the 1960s.

“It was the period when many things became a little bit more possible after the death of Stalin,” says Pawlikowski, who left Warsaw behind as a teenager and was, until recently, a resident of England, where he launched his career as an unconventional documentarian for the BBC. “By 1962, the heroic period of building communist Poland was over, heroic meaning also murderous, and suddenly a little bit of air was let in and communism became a little bit more shabby and pragmatic. It was called the ‘period of normalization.’ We were building a new society.” Citing the influence of Western culture such as jazz, he added, “Poland was the most liberal society in the Eastern Bloc at the time. It was known as the most jolly barrack in the communist camp. There were cool attitudes, a lot of hipster activity and postures which was kind of sweet at the time.”

Although Pawlikowski’s ballerina mother was Catholic, his father, a doctor, was Jewish. “He never publicized that fact,” the director said. “It wasn’t a big deal but obviously he was keeping it to himself. My father’s side of the family was mysteriously absent.” Figuring out the truth set the filmmaker on a path to asking more questions. “I discovered that my grandmother on his side died in Auschwitz,” he said. “I wanted to ask, what does it mean to be Catholic, to be Christian.”

Ida’s flirtation with a charming American jazz saxophonist she meets one night opens up another facet of the film. “Naima,” one of John Coltrane’s most heart-achingly lyrical ballads, sets the tone – a strange and compelling new language for the girl, suggesting that the worldliness of the jazz club offers its own kind of spiritual transcendence. The song opens up one of the kinds of windows that the film presents to each woman, drawing them towards acts of major consequence. “It’s so beautiful and mystical,” Pawlikowski said. “It captures the mind and feels like a meditation. She understands jazz and she thinks she understand the boy.”

The director, whose past includes a stint as a jazz pianist “who couldn’t get out of the shadows of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett,” also uses the interlude as nod to the days when “there was a little bit of swinging going on in Poland.” This was the heyday of Krzysztof Komeda, whose soundtrack graced Roman Polanski’s debut “Knife in the Water.”

The filmmaker described the atmosphere on set as akin to a laboratory. With a locked-down camera observing dramatic interiors and wide-open landscapes, the film has both a deliberate photographic quality and an artful kitchen-sink mise-en-scene. There was no coverage. Instead, Pawlikowski said he wanted the strongest images. “Not pretty, but right and rich and kind of emotional,” he explained. “Some friends accuse me of making it too formal to be emotional.”

Those friends would be wrong. In Pawlikowski’s aesthetic, the power lies in his actors’ faces, in the light and shadow, in the distance of a gaze, in the discovery of a instant. “I’m so sick of cheap emotion nowadays,” he said. “A handheld camera conveys emotions even when there aren’t any. The shots have emotions because of what I put in them and how they are lit. It’s a magic space, and I wanted each moment to have its own kind of value.”

Pawlikowski mentions that “Ida” has gotten some backlash in Poland for not dealing more explicitly with the Holocaust. “Some people kind of resent that it’s not about a settling of accounts, or about guilt,” he said. “It is that, but it’s more about the journey of these two women. One journey ends quite drastically…and the other ends quite drastically.”

But he admitted that there was a bigger picture as well. “Possibly, it’s about the impossibility of living in Poland in 1962. Or the impossibility of living in the world in general. I left it open,” he said. “I wanted it to work by poetic principles rather than prosaic ones: To resonate within the viewer.”

The acclaim since its premiere last fall at the Telluride Film Festival suggests that the approach paid off. “I’m surprised it’s as popular as it is,” he said. “I really thought I was making professional hari-kari. Polish films are so uncool in the world.”

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April 29, 2014 Greg Cwik
Review: How the Bleak Drama ‘Ida’ Channels Ingmar Bergman Movies

Shot in Bergman-approved 4:3, Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeously bleak “Ida” is a keen retrograde study of classic European cinema that simultaneously feels timeless. It reaches back to the advent of the Eastern European art film in its rhetorical musings, but it doesn’t succumb to the cute conventions of a period piece, which make its setting difficult to pin down (probably somewhere in the late-1950s, given the key presence of Coltrane’s pre-A Love Supreme music in the film). But with its elegant imagery and a story that follows suit, the film has a genuine feel and demands to be taken seriously.

In parsing the solace sought by Christians, Jews, and nonbelievers in Cold War-era Poland, “Ida” asks eternal questions to which it can’t possibly offer comfort or closure, so it doesn’t try. Pawlikowski avoids peddling in pedantic philosophizing, nor does he seek epiphanies in tortuous sensationalism in order to leave his viewers utterly depressed; he instead reflects on the everyday sadness that pervades common life. His is an eye and ear for truth instead of facts — Bergman by way of Tom Wolfe, if you will — but without the exclamation points. Notions of identity and the self— temporal, tangible, ethereal, spiritual are threaded through each scene, and the duality of life and death lingers in every shot.

“Ida” requires some commitment on the viewer’s part, but its sober, silent rewards are profound. A young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) on the verge of taking her vows discovers that her name isn’t actually Anna, but Ida, and she is actually Jewish, contrary to her life-long conviction. Her family was murdered and buried in the forlorn backwoods in unmarked graves, far from sacred ground, and Ida has lived her life under false pretenses.

This understandably upsets her, and shakes the foundation of her faith. She determinedly sets out to find someone, anyone, who knew her family. With her hard-drinking pessimist Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) behind the wheel, Ida goes on a road trip to find her parents’ bones. Trzebuchowska taps the sad, lonely stoicism used to great effect by Liv Ullmann in “Persona” and “The Passion of Anna” — her still eyes and thin non-frown barely disguise the turmoil percolating underneath. Aunt Wanda, conversely, is considerably more animated in her sorrow. At a satiating 80 minutes, this lean (but not emaciated) vivisection of faith and identity really digs at the fears, both overt and indiscernible, of post-WWII Poland.

Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal channel art-house aesthetics with ease, and at times “Ida” has the feel of an authentic lost Bergman film. Pawlikowski frames his shots with the tight, tense precision of a still-life photographer: horizontal lines transecting the screen, characters taking up the lower-thirds of shots, vast blank walls acting as canvases against which people and objects are placed, like furniture in a carefully-decorated set. His direction isn’t natural, and the immaculate 4:3 shots certainly draw attention to themselves, but, more importantly, Pawlikowski heightens the banal realism of his film, casting the quotidian as a series of tragic art pieces, suffusing it with an air of stillness and the epochal pause of a museum exhibit.

The black and white perception of religious orthodoxy is rendered in bleak gray scale, and the myriad static shots capture a world at once rife with proscribed change and devoid of progress, its people desperately sweeping the past under the rug. The heart-piercing realism is crafted with astute framing and a sort of hyper-realistic use of deep focus, which, in the almost-square 4:3, creates the disquieting sensation of experiencing a caroled, controlled version of everyday life, not unlike Bergman’s “God’s Silence” trilogy. But unlike those films, which can feel like a passive assault on one’s attention span, “Ida” laces the seriousness with wit, and something resembling charm manifests in one-liners alongside surprisingly irreverent humor.

Unlike the careful mise en scene, the jokes do feel natural, the lame efforts of damaged people looking for serenity in fleeting quips. The morbidity is tough but not relentless. Pawlikowski doesn’t punish his viewers, he simply challenges them. Take the vow to dedicate your attention to “Ida” and you’ll be rewarded deeply.


Pawel Pawlikowski
Writer and Director

IDA (feature film in Polish, written and directed, 2013)

LA FEMME DU CINQUIEME (feature film, written and directed, completed Summer 2011)

THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS (feature film, 2006 – abandoned)

MY SUMMER OF LOVE (feature film, written and directed, 2004)
BEST FILM Edinburgh Film Festival
BAFTA Best British Film
BEST SCREENPLAY Evening Standard Awards
BEST DIRECTOR Directors’ Guild of Great Britain
BEST NEW ACTORS Evening Standard Awards
BEST FILM, BEST ACTOR Cabourg Film Festival, France
EUROPEAN FILM AWARDS (nomintated) Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Photography
BEST FOREIGN FILM Polish Film Academy
BEST FILM Oslo Film Festival
FESTIVAL SCREENINGS Toronto, London, Thessaloniki, Rotterdam, Berlin, Sofia

LAST RESORT (feature film, written and directed, 2000)
BAFTA Best Newcomer
BEST FILM Edinburgh Film Festival
BEST FILM Thessaloniki Film Festival
BEST FILM Gijon Film Festival Spain
BEST FILM Motovun Festival, Croatia
EUROPEAN FILM AWARDS Discovery Prize nominated
BEST DIRECTOR ‘Heimat’ award by German Ministry of Culture
FIPRESCI PRIZE Thessaloniki, London Film Festivals
BEST ACTRESS Thessaloniki and Gijon
BEST ACTOR Thessaloniki

TWOCKERS (medium length drama, co-written and directed with Ian Duncan, 1998)

GRIERSON AWARD, Best British Documentary
GOLDEN GATE AWARD, San Francisco Film Festival


SERBIAN EPICS (doc 1992)
GRAN PRIX, Documentary Film Festival Marseille
GRAN PRIX, Festival dei Popoli, Florence



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May 1, 2014 Sydney Levine
Interview: Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski

I happen to love Jewish films and so when I saw Ida was playing in Toronto, it was first on my list of “must-sees”. However, I am no longer an “acquisitions” person, nor am I a film reviewer. My work keeps me out of the screening room because we work with filmmakers looking to get their films into the hands of those who will show their films. In other words, we advise and strategize for getting new films into the film circuit’s festivals, distributors’ and international sales agents’ hands.

So I missed Ida at its TIFF debut. In Cartagena, where I was invited to cover the festival for SydneysBuzz and where I was gathering information for the book I am currently writing on Iberoamerican Film Financing, it showed again in the jewel-box of a theater in this jewel-box of a city. But when I saw the first shots – and fell in love with it – I also saw it was subtitled in Spanish and rather than strain over translating, I left the theater. Later on, Pawel Pawlikowski and I sat next to each other at a fabulous dinner in one of Cartagena’s many outdoor squares, and we discussed the title of my book rather than his films which was a big loss on one hand but a big gain for me on the other because we got to speak as “civilians” rather than keeping the conversation on a “professional” level.

Now Music Box is opening IDA in L.A. on May 2nd at the Laemmle in L.A. and in N.Y. and I made sure to take advantage of my press status, not only to see the film but to interview Pawel on himself and the film.

There were two ways to look at this film: as a conceit, as in, “what a great story – a girl about to take her vows in the convent which raised her discovers she is Jewish and returns to the society which destroyed her family” — or as a journey of a fresh soul into the heart of humanity and finds that she is blessed by being able to decide upon her own destiny within it.

Parenthetically, this seems to me to be a companion piece to the Berlinale film Stations of the Cross by , another journey of a fresh soul into the spiritual life of religion as she struggles in the society which formed her.

And so I began my interview with Pawel:

I could look at this film in two ways, I’ve heard the audiences talk about whether the film is Anti-Polish or Anti-Semitic, but that is not my concern, I want to know if it is just a great story or does it go deeper than that?

Pawel immediately responded, I THINK he said, “I am not a professional filmmaker, and I do not make a ‘certain type of film’. I make films depending on where I am in life. A film about exile, a film about first love. Films mark where I am in my life.

In the 60s, when I was a kid and first saw the world…seeing the world for the first time…life is a journey and filmmaking marks where you (the audience) are in life and it marks where I am in life. Each film is different as a result.

After making Woman on the 5th, about the hero’s (in my own head) being lost in Paris, a weird sort of production – directed by a Polish director with a British and an American actor and actress, I craved solid ground, a familiar place or a “return” to important things of the past, and I returned to a certain period in Poland which I found very much alive, for myself then and again as I made this movie and in Polish history itself.

Ida takes place 17 years after the war and shortly after after Stalin’s crimes were being made public by Krushchev. The Totalitarian State of Poland bent a bit; censorship was lifted a bit and a new culture was developing. Music was jazz and rock and roll. Poland was very alive then: the spirit of going your own way, not caring what anyone thinks, creating a style in cinema, in art, music…

I myself was a young boy in the 60s and I left Poland in 71 when I was 13 to stay with my mother in England where she had married a Brit. My father lived in the West; they were divorced and I went for a holiday and stayed.

I went to school in the U.K. but at 13, I was thrown out and I went to Germany where my father lived and matriculated there. I couldn’t go back to Poland as I had left illegally and was only allowed back in to visit in the late 70s. I returned in 1980 during Solidarity and from 1989 to the fall of the Wall, I went back often.

Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history that wouldnʼt feel like a historical film— a film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer. I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no ax to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood…

I read you are going to make another film about Poland…

It is not about Poland but it is set in Poland. I am working on 3 projects which is how I work. I keep writing and find one of them has the legs to carry me…which one is not yet known.

You mentioned in an interview with Sight and Sound your top 10 films…

Yes, which ones did you like? They ask me this every year and every year the list changes for me. There are other good ones, like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia…they are not all the old classics and they are not necessarily my favorites or what I think are “the best”. Again they depend on where I am in my own life.

The ones I like on your list were Ashes and Diamonds which I saw in New York in my freshman year in college, La Dolce Vita …One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Some Like It Hot .

I actually think 8 ½ is more remarkable than La Dolce Vita. I also like Loves of a Blonde very much….

I found Ashes and Diamonds so extraordinary, I then had to see the actor in Man of Marble which took me to the next Man of Steel and Man of…whatever… until I thought I knew Wadja. What did you make of this film?

I saw it later as I was too young when it came out in the 60s. I saw it in the 70s when it was already a classic. Its impact on me was that it was well-done and about something. It is a comment about a man who decides whether to fight or to live. It could be remade in any country coming out of civil war.

To return to Ida, I noticed stylistic choices you made that I would like you to comment on.

The landscapes and interiors were very large and sparse. Interiors always had someone in the back ground moving, arranging or walking by in silence.

Yes there is always some life and the movements of people in the background are like music in the film, though it is not really music…

Yes, the music in the film is great. The magnificence of the classical music someone is playing, like the sister…

Yes I only want to use real music at times that real music is part of the story. I didn’t want film music. I wanted it to come out of silence. It is part of the scene like the background movement of people. Each piece means something. The pop songs were key from the start. They were fatally imprinted on my childhood memory. They really color the landscape. Coltrane and stuff came from my adult self.

Incidentally, the late 50s and early 60s were great for jazz in Poland. There was a real explosion: Komeda, Namyslowski, Stanko, Wroblewski… Apart from telling Idaʼs story, I wanted to conjure up a certain image of Poland, an image that I hold dear. My country may have been grey, oppressive and enslaved in the early 60s, but in some ways it was ‘cooler’ and more original than the Poland of today, and somehow more universally resonant.

Iʼm sure that lots of Poles with a chip on their shoulder, and there are many, will fail to notice the beauty, the love that went into our film—and will accuse me of damaging Poland’s image by focusing on the melancholy, the provincial, the grotesque… And then there’s the matter of a Polish farmer killing a Jewish family… thereʼs bound to be trouble. On the other hand, thereʼs also a Stalinist state prosecutor of Jewish origins, which might land me in hot water in other quarters. Still, I hope the film is sufficiently specific and un-rhetorical enough to be understood on its own terms.

The music Ida’s sister was playing before she…what are your thoughts about her sister?

Neither Ida nor her sister is typical. Wanda’s imprimatur is that she has no self-pity, no regrets, no sentimentality.

She had fought in the resistance rather than raise a family. She had been a super idealistic Marxist, became a part of the New Establishment and got drawn into the games and hypocrisy, sending people to death for “impeding progress”.

She reminds me of my father in some ways. Her acerbic sense of humor. I gave her some of my father’s lines.

Where Did The Character Of Wanda Come From?

When I was doing my post-graduate degree at Oxford in the early 80s I befriended Professor Brus, a genial economist and reformist Marxist who left Poland in ʻ68. I was particularly fond of his wife Helena, who smoked, drank, joked and told great stories. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she struck me as a warm and generous woman. I lost touch with the Bruses when I left Oxford, but some 10 years later I heard on BBC News that the Polish government was requesting the extradition of one Helena Brus-Wolinska, resident in Oxford, on the grounds of crimes against humanity. It turned out that the charming old lady had been a Stalinist prosecutor in her late twenties. Among other things, she engineered the death in a show trial of a completely innocent man and a real hero of the Resistance, General ‘Nil’ Fieldorf. It was a bit of a shock. I couldn’t square the warm, ironic woman I knew with the ruthless fanatic and Stalinist hangman. This paradox has haunted me for years. I even tried to write a film about her, but couldnʼt get my head around or into someone so contradictory. Putting her into Idaʼs story helped bring that character to life. Conversely, putting the ex-believer with blood on her hands next to Ida helped me define the character and the journey of the young nun.

By 1956, illusions about society were gone. Stalin’s crimes were revealed in 1961, there was a change of government, a new generation was coming of age. Wanda was a judge they called “Red Wanda” and had sent enemies of the state to their deaths. The older generation was left high and dry. Communism had become a shabby reality. Her despair was apparent– she had been heroic and now the system was a joke.

And then some creature from the past pops up and makes her reveal all she had swept under the carpet. She drank too much, there was no love in her life, only casual sex. But still she was straight-ahead, directed and unstoppable.

And then after the revelations of what had become of their parents and her child, her sister returns to the convent. There is nowhere for her to go. She hits a wall. She is heroic and there is no place for her in society anymore.

And Ida? Why did you choose such a person?

Ida has multiple origins, the most interesting ones probably not quite conscious. Let’s say that I come from a family full of mysteries and contradictions and have lived in one sort of exile or another for most of my life. Questions of identity, family, blood, faith, belonging, and history have always been present.

I’d been playing for years with the story of a Catholic nun who discovers sheʼs Jewish. I originally set it in ʻ68, the year of student protests and the Communist Party sponsored anti-Semitic purges in Poland. The story involved a nun a bit older than Ida, as well as an embattled bishop and a state security officer, and the whole thing was more steeped in the politics of the day. The script was turning out a little too schematic, thriller-ish and plotty for my liking, so I put Ida aside for a while and went to Paris to make The Woman In The Fifth . I was in a different place at the time.

When I came back to Ida, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted the film to be. My cowriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz and I stripped the whole thing down, made it less plotty, the characters richer and less functional. Ida became younger, more inexperienced, more of a blank slate, a young girl on the brink of life. Also we moved the story to ʻ62, a more nondescript period in Poland, but also a time of which I have most vivid memories, my own impressions as a child – unaware of what was going on in the adult world, but all the more sensitive to images and sounds. Some shots in the film couldʼve come from my family album.

In the course of the film, Ida undergoes a change. She becomes energized. When she returns to the convent you can see it in her body movements. It is the only time we used a hand-held camera to depict the new energy she has acquired. She is going into the spiritual in a different way. The old way elicited a giggle from her; she had seen the sensuality of the novice nun bathing…whether she is returning to the convent to stay is left to the viewer to decide.

The viewer is brought into a space of associations they make on their own, the film is more like poetry where the feeling of the viewer is the private one of the viewer, not one the film imposes.

Yes, each sister enters a new reality and comes out changed, and I was left thinking there was nothing better of the two life choices, the “normal” life of love and family and the “spiritual” life of simple living and silent devotion. There needs to be some balance between the two, but what is that? I still don’t know.

On a last note: I noticed in the end credits you thanked Alfonso Cuarón. Why was that?

Yes he liked the film a lot. There were many people I thanked, like Agnieszka Holland. These are friends I can show my work to. They protect me against critics and festivals. This group of friends can also be nasty, but they are honest friends.

Thank you so much Pawel for your insights. I look forward to meeting you again “on the circuit”.

To my readers, here are the nuts and bolts of the film:

Music Box Films is the proud U.S. distributor of Ida, the award-winning film written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Ida world premiered at Telluride 2013 and Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film; then played the London Film Festival where it won Best Film, and was the Grand Prix winner at the Warsaw Film Festival. It played as an Official Selection in the 2014 Sundance and New York Jewish Film Festivals.

Poland 1962. Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a beautiful eighteen-year-old woman, preparing to become a nun at the convent where she has lived since orphaned as a child. She learns she has a living relative she must visit before taking her vows, her mother’s sister Wanda. Her aunt, she learns, is not only a former hard-line Communist state prosecutor notorious for sentencing priests and others to death, but also a Jew. Anna learns from her aunt that she too is Jewish – and that her real name is Ida. This revelation sets Anna, now Ida, on a journey to uncover her roots and confront the truth about her family. Together, the two women embark on a voyage of discovery of each other and their past. Ida has to choose between her birth identity and the religion that saved her from the massacres of the Nazi occupation of Poland. And Wanda must confront decisions she made during the War when she chose loyalty to the cause before family.

Following his breakthrough films Last Resort and BAFTA-award winning My Summer of Love, Ida marks Polish-born, British writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s first film set in his homeland. Ida stars Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza.


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