The films of Pawel Pawlikowski have only intermittently interested me. I found his Woman in the Fifth (2011) utterly empty. My Summer of Love (2004) had much to recommend it, that is, up to the point where lesbian sex is conflated with psychopathology (the film shares some things in common with Ida, including a young, naïve woman’s chance at self-discovery, only to be left entirely on her own).
Ida is yet another film of the recent season that did well in the “art houses,” but is probably totally unknown to the countless victims of blockbuster culture. The film is very intriguing (I saw it in the cinema twice, and screened it on DVD at least a half-dozen times), its formal properties very engaging and its sympathy for at least one of its characters compelling, if qualified. By now the style of this film has been commented on, but Pawlikowski’s use of black and white, with “square” aspect ratio, produces a chilly effect, capturing the cold grey of wintertime Poland during the early-1960s Communist bloc “thaw” following Khrushchev’s denouncing of Stalinism. The cinematic image is in counterpoint to the ostensible ideological climate – the world of the film is characterized by a cold, barren landscape, which is in visual contrast to a supposed ideological/cultural shift, limited to be sure. The counterpoint also extends, perhaps unintentionally, to a less-than-sympathetic portrayal of two women as the film appears to embrace them.
Sister Agnes (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun about to take her final vows at a dreary convent somewhere near Lodz, the Polish city once notable for its rich Jewish culture, then for its monstrous ghetto, finally liquidated by the Nazis.
Pawlikowski’s images are striking, the static camera increasing a sense of rigidity. Many scenes are shot so that the human subject occupies only the lower half (or third) of the frame, a technique derived from the plastic arts suggesting the insignificance or oppression of the human being. We first see Sister Agnes repairing a statue of Jesus, then replacing it, with the help of other nuns, in a sparse circular grotto, basically a hole in the ground, in the exterior snowscape. The nuns then eat a silent meal of soup, the older nuns eyeing the younger with suspicion. The feeling of oppression is complete; what untoward behavior, after all, or unpoliced behavior of any sort, could the young nuns be up to? The notion of the convent as last refuge for poor women, a theme of Cristian Mingiu’s superb Beyond the Hills, recurs, although here, while minus the authoritarian male priest, the atmosphere seems far more suffocating, the geometry of its interiors more stultifying, than in Mingiu’s (much superior) film.
Sister Agnes is told by her superior that she is to meet with her aunt, her only living relative, before taking her final vows. Agnes’s Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a judge who once had a pivotal role in the postwar Stalinist show trials, earning the name Red (bloody) Wanda. We see her in judicial robes, presiding, in her current diminished role, over the persecution of a peasant for deviating from the party line by cutting down someone’s flowers, a come-down from her glory days of ideological executions. The scene is crucial. Wanda is striking, the dark hair and eyes of Agata Kulesza projecting eroticism and danger, as if the evil queen of a very grim fairy tale, yet her presence establishes her here and throughout the film as its most compelling character. At the trial, she sits staring, wondering, perhaps, how she will handle a new relationship with her long-abandoned niece more than the fate of a deviationist peasant.
Pawlilowski cast Agata Trzebuckowska, a non-actor, in the role of Sister Agnes because of her gentle, almost unformed facial features, a figure who can be a subject of our projections less than a person about to be transformed. This strikes me as a mistake on several counts. Pawlikowski, here and elsewhere, seems uninterested in taking a position, in creating a situation we must evaluate. This is fine to a point, but such a tactic can produce obscurantism more than “realism,” or an unwillingness to cultivate metaphor or a worldview. In interviews, the director has spoken about his distaste for bringing up standard arguments about Communism, Soviet or otherwise. One consequence of Pawlikowski’s intellectual dithering is the harm he does to the journey of two women as they discover themselves and new possibilities in a (temporarily, relatively, and very tentatively) unrepressed circumstance.
Wanda informs Agnes that the young nun is actually a Jew whose real name is Ida. She was orphaned after the slaughter of her family by the Nazis, including Wanda’s beloved sister Roza, Ida’s mother. The two look for the burial sites of the family, at one point confronting a dying man who had a hand in the murders. His son actually killed the family; he leads them through the woods to a burial site where he unearths the remains. Wanda, we learn, had a son out of wedlock turned over to Roza. During the exhumation, Wanda retrieves her child’s skull in a moment wherein her façade collapses as she walks quietly away. Ida waits for the other small remains.
One difficulty with the confrontation with the past is that it seems minimal, both in the time spent on the rediscovery activity and a real sense of the complicity of Poland and the Catholic Church in the Holocaust. Poland was chosen as the site of the Nazi extermination camps not only for its intricate, if rickety, rail system leading to backwater towns, but for the deeply-entrenched anti-Semitism of many of its Catholic-influenced peasants, a convenience for neighboring Germany (well-documented in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, especially the DVD release). But the recovery scenes even more firmly establish Wanda as the emotional center of the film, Ida always a cipher, someone who shows only traces of understanding the outer world from which she was for so long removed.
The remainder of the film focuses on the two women’s engagement with each other. Wanda has an appetite for life – she offers her niece a doughnut, which Ida turns down. She is emotionally generous with her niece. Wanda is then revealed as an alcoholic who is “sexually promiscuous.” Of course sex addiction, can be, like any addiction, a refusal to confront trauma, to deny an uninterrogated aspect of the self, which seems to be Wanda’s problem. But the portrayal of Wanda is annoying in its lack of penetrating intelligence.
Although Pawlikowski has said he wanted to humanize both women, and to remove them from ideological and cultural stereotypes common in Polish cinema and elsewhere, Wanda is very close to a stereotype. One could argue that she is tormented by her sins under Stalin, and her full knowledge of the Nazi genocide, turning her into a gradually-degraded lush. She commits suicide in a rather matter-of-fact way, casually jumping out of a hotel window as she plays Mozart’s Jupiter symphony on her gramophone, raising the volume just before she dies – but does the film intend to make her death “glorious” rather than suggest that hope is still held out for genuinely great human achievements like Mozart’s?
Wanda’s key role in this film is to awaken her niece to the life and history around her, yet not only does Wanda destroy herself, life having been unendurable for her, her life as she lives it is portrayed as thoroughly awful. Can’t she pick up one man who isn’t a repugnant pig? (We meet one pick-up off-camera, as he says goodbye to Wanda. This is a kind of pornography, where a sex partner is rendered a nothing, a non-human.) Can’t her sexuality have at least a touch of beauty if she is offered to us as an intelligent human being, as the director suggests she is? Can’t we for once have a portrayal of the “promiscuous” (I prefer Robin Wood’s definition of this term as “relating freely”) woman as other than a tramp, a self-destructive neurotic, a degraded wastrel? When Wanda and Ida pick up Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a jazz artist who will be Ida’s brief lover, Wanda remarks that the saxophone is “such a masculine, sensuous instrument.” Obviously she is alluding to the male genitals, and the moment tends again to emphasize Wanda the leering, burnt-out criminal degenerate, rather than a woman who is indeed world-weary, but frank about her sex drive.
This is not to say that the portrayal of Wanda is monolithic; it is more troublesome than this, a character not well thought-through. There is a tragic aspect to her, yet we know very little of the impact of tragedy on her, aside from its aftermath in the consequences of alcohol and free sex. Alcohol could be said to be the easy dramatic device by which Pawlikowski maintains his minimalist characterization. Liquor is the narcotic that Wanda has long used to inure herself to her role as state executioner for Stalin, her witnessing of the Holocaust. But was her position as Soviet judge a form of revenge against the West for the Nazi genocide? Her demotion seems to suggest that she has too much conscience, and has shown it to the wrong people at the wrong time. But how did Wanda rise to power in the first place, given Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges after the war, the time when Wanda enjoyed prominence?
There is a sense that Wanda’s suicide is “inevitable,” given her corrupted soul and sexual depravity, even as she is shown to be a more authentic, more mature person than her young niece. A drunk Wanda tries to embrace Ida in a moment of real, if sloppy, affection. Ida pulls away from her. Wanda says in her stupor that they might “read together,” taking Ida’s Bible. Ida jerks it out of her aunt’s hands thinking it an act of mockery and sacrilege – it is notable that while Wanda is clearly an atheist, and alludes to the beliefs of Christianity, she never derides her niece. When Ida rejects her embrace, Wanda crawls into bed, recognizing the situation: “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint.” When Wanda says Jesus loved women like her (true enough if you accept the populist interpretation), Ida again pulls away angrily. Wanda remarks : “What a beast has come out!” Her observation is important, and undercuts the notion of Ida as ignorant innocent, but as someone who will continue her aunt’s past ideology and barbarism, in some form, rather than learn from her current example.
If we are unsure exactly what Wanda has witnessed and done, Ida is too obvious as mere witness. Pawlikowski is too hesitant with non-actor Agata Trzebuchowska, preferring to use her radiant face as a kind of slate onto which we can write what we wish. Ida returns momentarily to the convent; she goes back to the city for her aunt’s funeral. After her aunt’s service (during which a party hack celebrates Wanda for being a “defender of socialism,” whose deeds were insufficient to prevent her marginalization), Ida removes her nun’s veil, tries on her aunt’s clothes – even her high-heeled shoes – and goes to the pop-jazz club near their hotel in Lodz. There she is romanced by Lis as they listen to nondescript pop, suggesting the colonization of Western Europe by the US. But there are some grace notes here, especially Lis and his combo playing John Coltrane’s magnificent “Naima” and “Equinox.” Such moments suggest a strong sense of potential, but the usefulness of the scenes dissolves quickly; we already know what happened with the “thaw,” and Pawlikowski’s opposition to eroticism and its liberating politics are too self-evident. Ida and Lis make love. Ida asks “what now?” Lis responds, a bit cynically, with “a house, children, pets…life.” The line strikes me as deliberately trite (one can hear Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”), and too much an expression of world-weariness beyond the young character’s age, out of keeping with his soulfulness. Ida’s ultimate gesture seems at one level an expression of existential dread, with its sense of Soviet Communism’s permanent rule (carrying with it, I think, the director’s dismissal of any form of socialism), but it is merely a retreat to the security of the convent.
Two complementary scenes stand out. The first shows the car of Wanda and Ida at a bleak intersection. There is nothing there but a dead tree and a small religious monument, to which Wanda offers devotion. The next scene is at another intersection, this one utterly barren in the dismal winter light. There is a bus stop, nothing more than a tiny shed, built so that it is canted at a “modernist” angle, as if this is all that the nation (and these two women) will get of liberation, of a genuine celebration of life. Religion and the degraded modern culture of the west are the only options for the women.
In the end, Ida, wearing her nun’s habit, walks toward us along a country road, presumably en route to the convent. The life introduced to her by Wanda and Lis is unsatisfactory, so it seems. The hand-held camera wavers, so one could argue, I suppose, that the film ends on a note of ambiguity – but it is a small note indeed. If this is a film about the struggle of women – and I think it must be read as such, issues of 1960s Poland aside – one can hardly walk away from the film feeling that it has any commitments, except of a conservative nature. The notion of the convent as safe haven for lonely, poor women makes sense, but compare Pawlikowski’s vision again to Beyond the Hills, where the convent is a place of false security, a locus of nothing more than repression, then outright murder, the destroyer of women, of lesbian desire.
As Ida walk toward us, we might imagine that she is rejecting her aunt’s world and that of Lis, all being forms of patriarchal society. But the notion of the female struggling for absolute freedom is delusional and ridiculous, especially given what she sees as protective – one of the most patriarchal enclaves of all.
Pawlikowski seems to reject the idea of the human as much as Stalinism ever did, if I can indulge in some hyperbole. Although he offers what appears to be a portrayal of two women, there is hardly a moment of real empathy. Praise for what they might be said to embody (at least Wanda), especially the sex drive, seems meaningless to him. His sense of the bleak world of Soviet rule is utterly insistent, especially as it becomes, here and in much Polish cinema, a rationale for the flat-out rejection of an authentic socialism (the worst example is Wajda’s Danton , where the French Revolution is compared to Russia’s and to Polish oppression, with the idea that “revolution is confusion,” or far worse). The social world of Ida is unremittingly miserable, except for a few moments of Lis’s saxophone.
As Ida returns to the convent and the film ends, there is another grace note, Bach’s “Ich ruf zur dir, Herr Jesus Christ,” the musical prelude to the choral piece, played on piano with the measured, meditative style of the great Alfred Brendel. The piece closes the film, acting both as Bach’s petition and as benediction on what we have just seen. But what does Pawlikowski want blessed? The Bach piece may simply evoke pity for the hopeless world that the film presents, a use of this music that would bring an argument from Bach.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He contributes regularly to Film International.