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This article was written on 01 Jul 2014, and is filled under Film & TV.

Antigone in Post-War Poland

“Ida” is an odd amalgam. Set in 1962, it brings together two female characters who could not be more incongruous as they negotiate a somber Polish landscape in their common effort to resolve the wartime murders and burial of their close relatives. For it so happens that as different as a

Wanda and Ida on Szymon's trail, Google Images

Wanda and Ida on Szymon’s trail, Google Images

devout novitiate on the verge of taking her vows and a cynical, only too worldly middle-aged Jewish survivor could be, they share a common bloodline. “Ida” is a current first-run road-film, attracting growing audiences around the world. What enables this film to build to its full dramatic and affective impact is an ethical disinterest of vision subtending the miracles that the film-camera achieves through understated elegance and auratic photography–hearkening back to the Black-and-White foundations of cinematic invention and verity. Were this not a story of incompatible truths and breathtaking ironies, many of its still-shots on their own—of figures framed by back-lit lace curtains and restaurant windows, of farm barnyards so backward as to belie the vehemence of holding onto them, of soon-to-be abandoned apartments photographed in their wide-angle expanse–would be more than worth the price of admission.

The film’s overall progression could not be simpler. Survivor Wanda Gruz (Agata Kuleszka), in league with her long-lost niece, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), circles toward the killing fields and truth relating to the murders of her sister and son–not at the hands of the Nazis but of a Polish farmer, Feliks Skiba (Adam Szyszkowski), whose family had initially offered them safe haven. Their tracks lead from Wanda’s apartment in Lodz, where their reunion takes off on an abrupt and uncomfortable note, to the former Lebenstein homestead near the town of Piaska, where the remains of Haím and Róża Lebenstein and of Wanda’s unnamed son may well be situated. On first encounter, Feliks deflects the visitors with denials and outright lies. They proceed to the small city of Szydłów, where they hope to wring the truth from Szymon, Feliks’s father (Jerzy Trela). When Feliks finally comes clean, not only with the truth but with the remains of the womens’ three relatives, the women deliver these to their final resting place in Lublin. What lends this artwork both its ethical power and its aesthetic distinction is not the travelogue but the multiple ironies and complexities that it sustains throughout. It is the Mother Superior of the very convent at which novitiate Anna (née Ida) is soon to be instated as a nun who insists on her coming to terms with her heritage, specifically with her alcoholic, sexually active aunt, who in the wake of the War and through her affiliation with the Communist Party, was noted for her severity as a powerful prosecutor, “the Red Wanda.”

Although motivated by her aunt to sample the worldly existence that her religious vocation disavows, Anna/Ida remains in character. Already when we meet her, it is clear how absorbed in and taken with the daily rituals and rhythms of devout Catholic life she is. While Wanda, waiting to meet Feliks in Piaska, puts back shot after shot of vodka, Anna retires to the local church, where she contemplates the Baroque image of Jesus she always carries with her. She is tangibly shaken by what she learns of her own tangled connections to the War. She was spared by a no doubt terrified Feliks after he liquidated her parents and her cousin. He immediately handed her over to the Church. But none of this deters the eventuality of her return to the convent. The Polish Church is the only home Anna has known, and she is a person of profound and sober faith, fine-tuned to the practicalities of religious service. There is little expectation throughout the film that she is going to abandon her calling, and little doubt that her going forward in her vocation is going to spell the end of multiple lines of affiliation for her aunt: genetic, familial, and cultural. Coupled with the exhumation of the facts regarding her parents’ and cousin’s murders, Anna’s commitment to her religious calling spells the end to Wanda’s social and cultural ties to Poland. The latter’s eventual suicide, after a night consistent with her lifestyle, is in multiple senses an afterthought.

In the course of aunt and niece’s meanderings throughout the bleakness of post-War Poland’s cultural as well as geographical landscapes, they gradually switch roles. Wanda changes from a slightly flippant substitute-parent figure, exposing Anna to the ways of the world, into a devastated human being who at several crucial junctures—notably Feliks’s exhumation of their relatives–is sustained by Anna’s increasingly confident pastoral support. As a figment of the Polish Church, Anna is allowed to personify its centrality to the national culture, the persistent grounding and anchoring figured by the earthly routines and rituals at the convent and that the Church endeavors to assert to this day. Even though the downbeat in the narrative is clearly on the immense and non-recuperable tragedy to Jewish culture and community during the twentieth-century disintegration of European civilization, as particularized in Anna’s decision to pass her newly discovered heritage by, the film is persistent in tracing out the Polish-Jewish dynamic as an exchange: humor, irreverence and an acute sense of justice, as embodied by Wanda, in exchange for persistence, survival, and sober realism. As clichéd as these cultural stereotypes may be, they do a great deal to structure the film. In spite of the nearly zero-sum gain on the Jewish end of this Polish-Jewish exchange program, the film hovers in the complexities and gives-and-takes of the ongoing transaction rather than in non-negotiable outcomes.

This is a counterpoint, and music is used to particularly powerful effect in this film as an insignia and register of cultural and historical complexity. Indeed, it is in the jazz-tradition of U.S. music in which any hope or cause for rejoicing tendered by this film resides. The quest to wring the truth from the aged and infirm Szymon Skiba brings the women to the small city of Szydłów.  A jazz saxophonist, Lis (Dawid Grodnik), whom they have picked up at a roadside bus stop, is headed there to play the town’s 550th birthday celebration. He is a handsome and decent sort, not to mention a virtuoso saxophonist, himself claiming some gypsy ancestry. As a performer, Lis manages to impart novelty and excitement to Coltrane’s “Naima.” Wanda soon earmarks him as an excellent choice for Anna’s overdue initiation into experience.

Vignettes of the weekend dance-scene at a hotel in small-town Poland with all the trappings of post-War socialist decor ring as true as the film’s grimmer moments, whether set in the convent or at the former Lebenstein farm. Lis’s combo, lit up by electrifying vocals furnished by actress and vocal artist Joanna Kulig, plays an eclectic repertoire. Rock-polkas alternate with the Italian pop-hits of the day (“Love in Portofino”). But it is ‘Trane who expresses the combo’s highest artistic aspiration, who personifies the broadest musical and cultural horizon that the musicians, and with them Poland, have ahead of them. The jazz numbers are the pleasurable reparation accompanying the film’s somber allegory. The logic of this transposition runs as follows: there may not be many Jews left in Poland to effect a restoration or clean-up after the catastrophe (Wanda and Anna have had to bury the family remains unassisted by any rabbi.) But then, the musical heritage of Poland is profound, vital, and talented enough to provide the musical outpourings of another beleaguered, yet unsettled diasporic culture with an enthusiastic reception and home.

Wanda’s suicide, following her depositing Anna back at the convent, causes the novitiate enough of a crise de conscience to delay the vow-ceremony that will inaugurate her life as a nun. In the interregnum, she takes up residence in Wanda’s apartment, stumbles in her aunt’s high heels, smokes cigarettes, drinks vodka, and relinquishes her virginity. The experience presumably makes quite an impression on Lis, for even though he is trying to avoid vows of any sort, he offers her, in succession, all the appurtenances (marriage, children, house) belonging to a stable domestic life. Her contribution to the post-coital exchange amounts to a single boldface question mark: what will the path of sanctioned conjugal union mean? “And then? . . .” With considerable luminescence, Anna emerges from this scene, despite a cloistered life and its dearth of real-world experience, as a person of heightened existential profundity and religious sensibility. The film definitively establishes that the “normal” life, even with the secret ingredient of sex now thrown in, has simply never been her calling. The drift of her trajectory is already cast, regardless of very different torque it applies to Wanda and to Lis.

The power of “Ida” largely inheres in the honesty and directness—in the fullest cinematic sense—that it manages to impart to an involuted conjunction of historical events, allegiances, cultural values, and moods. The grainy B-W photography furnishes the material and cultural conditions of post-War Poland with nothing by way of cosmetics. The brief sequence in which Feliks exhumes not only the victims of the persecution but the complexities of the moment of their murder is a film-stopper on several accounts. After the characters march through a wide field into first-growth forest, Feliks, grunting, his exertions multiple, truly digs himself in. Not only into the makeshift grave he had fashioned for Ida’s parents and cousin, but into the sub-basement of Western ethics put on hold by the anomie of the War. The two women, by now linked by empathy stronger than their beliefs or lifestyles, sit impassively by the pit while the soil mounts up. Feliks’s handing Wanda the skull of her murdered son, followed by the remains of Ida’s parents, is an agonizing interval, no doubt the turning point. The subterranean pit in which Adam Szyszkowski stunningly acts this vignette, is also the very sub-stratum of myth, whether of Orpheus returning for Eurydice or Antigone in her all-out confrontation with state-administered injustice.  Feliks is reduced to this grave of bare human endurance as of base depravity as he, with some belligerence, demands closure from Anna and spits out the facts surrounding the murders. The fact that the Red Wanda had put the harshest possible juridical face on the Communist State is no small irony here. The earth-world opening up so shockingly at this juncture imparts the grain of unadorned cinematography, the earthiness of a tale with few elements and moving parts, but concealing the yet unexhausted riddles of our age, with its fatal penchant for genocide—death and business on an industrial scale.

There is every bit as ironic a parallelism between the sequences leading, respectively, to the vows-ceremony at which Anna does not yet become a nun and to Wanda’s suicide. The camera engages in mythical embellishment as it catches the novitiates weaving wreaths, prostrating themselves on the sanctuary floor, sharing a preparatory meal (as ever, in silence), bathing one another ritually. With her family now buried in Lublin and Ida lost to her devout life, Wanda once more brings a drinking partner home for the night, sugars her bread-and-butter in the morning, takes a very different bath from the novitiates, turns up Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, and leaps from the awaiting window. Back from the convent for the funeral, the resolve and sheer competence with which Anna clears away her aunt’s crumbs and disposes of her empty liquor bottles re-marks the intrinsic integrity of her Lebensweise.

“Ida” is an tremendous credit to its writers, Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, its director (Pawlikowski), its impeccable corps of actors and musicians, and its cinematography. Because it offers—by design–so little in the way of historical moratorium or oversimplification, it will not be soon forgotten.

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