I went on the March of the Living a couple years ago. It was the first time I’d ever been to to Poland, even though three out of four of my grandparents were born in (what was at least then) the country. It was a very interesting experience.
Poland used to be home to around 3.2 million Jews. To put that in perspective, if Poland had 3.2 million Jews today, it would have the third largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and America. Only about two hundred thousand of them survived the war.
Understandably, the ghost of the what was once European Jewry still lingers in Poland, and the country continues its attempt at coming to grips with this. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida can be seen as one such effort. It is the story of one such Jewish ghost who returns to haunt those who remain.
The title character, Ida, is a young nun who has grown up in the convent and is about to take her vows and confirm herself for G-d forever. Before she does though, one of her superiors (the head nun? I’m not sure how it works…) tells her that she must visit her sole living relative, an aunt named Wanda. When she does, she learns from her aunt – a judge and former prosecutor for the communist government – that she is, in fact, Jewish, and her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. She was handed over to the church as a baby, and so spared from being slaughtered along with them.
It’s hard to tell exactly how Ida receives the news, as her entire characters comes across as a blank slate coloured in only by religious ritual. Wanda, however, sees in her the sister she loved and lost, and more or less drags her along on a mission to find out where her parents were buried and transfer their remains to the family plot in the Jewish cemetery.
Along the way we see the damage the war and the communist regime has had on Wanda, as she drinks, hooks up with random men, and every now and then breaks her pissy demeanour to say something honest and show just how painful Ida’s appearance in her life is, reawakening old, painful memories. At one point she says to Ida, “I won’t let you throw your life away!” And we see how Ida too is forever lost to her, too far gone from her Jewish past and family and too engulfed in the world of Christian ritual and belief for the two to ever truly connect. Wanda wishes that they could, seemingly because she sees buried somewhere in Ida the only remains of the her sister’s soul.
The defining quality of the film is its understatedness. Though there’s not an extreme shortage of dialogue, it is for the most part quiet, calmly delivered. Rather, it is the film’s black and white cinematography that speaks to the viewer. Ida, in particular, cannot be understood through her speech at all; the viewer is forced to try to pierce her placid exterior to see from her movements, her facial expressions, her lack of expressions, how she is processing her incredible experience and hitherto unknown history. Actually, it would have been good if Pawlikowski took more time with Ida to explore what this news that she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered in the Holocaust actually means to her, as what should be the film’s focal subject is treated by its main character as an almost superfluous detail.
The cinematography’s other triumph is capturing the feel of post-war soviet Poland in its dreariness and confusion, caught between the old world and the slowly but surely encroaching new Western-dominated one. An excellent and very classical European soundtrack assists in this.
To me, Ida came across as something of an allegory for the death of Polish Jewry. Either it was murdered like Ida’s family, assimilated and erased like Ida herself, or removed of its own volition, like Ida’s aunt Wanda. All that is left of it is a memory, a faded black and white photograph, and a thunder of silence. I’m not sure if this was Pawlikowski’s intention – perhaps he simply wanted to reflect on a time and a place in Poland he remembered – but that’s what I saw in the film and what I see in Poland, a far off place that will always be one of memories inherited or imagined.