Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Ida" 2013 Beautiful but Underdeveloped

"Ida" 2013 directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is a brief (80 minutes) black-and-white, two-character movie. It is very quiet; you barely need to read the subtitles to follow the slender plot. It is so slow-moving that three times while watching it I suspected that technical difficulties had stopped the film. No; the actor and scene were merely all but frozen. This almost anorexic film takes on huge, sweeping issues: Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, identity, the Holocaust, guilt, karma, Communist oppression of Poles, and the Catholic vow of chastity for nuns. Reviewers have blessed "Ida" with glowing reviews, insisting that this minimalist film makes big points through allusion and suggestion.

I doubt this. I think most viewers who don't know a heck of a lot about Poland will be baffled and bored by this movie. I think sometimes less is not more but really is less. I think "Ida" would have been a better film with a more tightly focused and more developed screenplay. Words can lead to misunderstanding but words are what we've got to work with. "Too many notes!" a cinematic emperor criticized a Mozart work. "Ida" suffers from "too few words."

In spite of its heavy subject matter, what struck me most about "Ida," and what I will most remember, is its visual beauty. "Ida" is shot in black and white, and it takes place in undistinguished Polish settings in the depth of winter. You see snow-covered fields, corner bars, dingy buildings with cracked plaster. The careful composition of each shot, and the cinematographers' lovely handling of different gradations of light and shadow, transform otherwise dreary locales into works of art.

"Ida" is about a teenage girl in Poland in the 1960s. She has spent her entire life in convent, and she is about to take her final vows. Her mother superior orders her to meet, for the first time, with Wanda Gruz, her sole living relative. Ida does so, and Wanda informs Ida that she is Jewish. Wanda and Ida travel to the village where their Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a barn. Ida's parents and brother were murdered. Wanda and Ida travel to their grave. This new information causes Ida to reassess her commitment to becoming a nun.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. Press accounts claim she is not a professional actress. She is given very little to say or do. The camera spends much time gazing at her youth and beauty. A male director ogling a gorgeous young amateur – the director's "discovery" – whom he does not allow to speak, act or develop as something other than an artistic composition – distracted and offended me. Enough already with females as marionettes of male geniuses.

Agata Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, Ida's aunt. Wanda was a judge under Communism. Wanda participated in the persecution of Polish anti-Nazi fighters in the post-war era. Wanda is based on the real life Helena Wolińska-Brus. Wolinska-Brus participated in the Stalinist persecution of genuine heroes who had fought the Nazis and aided Jews. She was a monster.

The Wanda Gruz of "Ida" is not a monster. She is the most fascinating and memorable character in the film. She is the one burning ember in an otherwise inert, black-and-white landscape of monosyllabic Polish peasants and the boring Miss Goody Twoshoes, Ida. Wanda is complex. She is a highly tormented character who drinks, smokes, is sexy and sexually promiscuous, and reveals her superior intelligence through her sarcasm. In the scene where Wanda and Ida are brought to their relatives' graves by a morally compromised Polish peasant, Wanda reveals deep grief. You cannot help but like Wanda.

In a movie that touches on WW II and the Holocaust, I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film? If not, then why did he place a sexy and lovable Stalinist murderess at the center of his film? Answer: Because Stalinist murder does not carry the same taint as Nazi murder. Problem: the millions tortured and murdered in the name of Communism are just as dead as the millions murdered in the name of Nazism.

There are volumes of history and hours of debate transcripts behind the issues that "Ida" touches on. Most filmgoers will have no idea of any of this and much of the film will pass right over their heads. Reviews on the International Movie Database reveal this. Sincere and intelligent filmgoers were unmoved and befuddled by "Ida." Key pieces of information are never articulated: Poland was occupied by Nazis. Nazis persecuted and murdered Polish Catholics as well as Jews. Some Poles betrayed Jews. Some Poles were heroic and saved Jews. Many Poles were neither heroic nor villainous. Everyone was afraid for his or her life. A thousand years of history preceded the Nazi era, and every word and gesture has history behind it. There are no easy answers.

"Ida" falls into predictable traps. Its Jewish character, Wanda, is fascinating and verbal, worldly and morally compromised. Its Catholic character is pure, but boring and simpleminded. These stereotypes are trite and unworthy of any serious film.

Towards the end of the film, one major character leaves the movie and the other character is left to pursue an underdeveloped and aborted subplot that serves no end except to add extra minutes to the runtime. 


  1. You are, of course, correct that Stalinist crimes do not carry the same stigma as Nazi crimes, even though all the victims are equally dead. However, there is another reason for the non-condemnation of Communist criminals. In Poland, no Communist was ever brought to justice for his crimes, because of the lack of LUSTRACJA (lustration). Many of these criminals are still alive. Consequently, it would not be a good idea to get people thinking about Stalinist crimes too much.

  2. It's another anti-Polish movie. But if you look at who runs the Anti-Polish Ministry of "Culture", it won't shock you that this movie was selected. Their war on Poles continues and it will continue so long as we exist.

  3. As an American or Polish descent who knows only a little Polish language but a lot (for an American) of Polish history and culture, I thought Ida to be a superb film in many aspects. First off, though i understand some Polish, I still depend on subtitles for solid understanding--there were not that many and language did not get in the way. Rather, I found this film to be an story expertly told with few word and in black and white--again, no color distractions. The story was meaningful and developed as the plot progressed. In a way it was a very sad story, but not told in a sad way. It touched on both the worst and the best of human nature and of the tragic stories surrounding World War II and the whole "Nazi experience" to put it delicately. It was perhaps, as the author of this review indicated, a bit "easy" on Stalinist policies, but that did not seem to be the focus of the movie. Rather it was the struggle of two people to make sense of something that really can't have sense made of it, man's unspeakably dark ability to casually commit horrific crimes against human nature.... I absolutely loved this movie, it moved me deeply.

  4. It is nice to have a serious discussion about a movie that touches upon what happened to Poland in WWII. This movie is a sad story within a much larger sad story. And unfortunately there are too many Polish Americans who don't know much about the larger story. If I was given the chance to remake this movie I would have it start in color with a 70 year old Ida, with the full markings of a Catholic mother superior, standing in line of the sparkling new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. She would walk through the exhibits quickly not saying much, just observing the way she does as an 18 year old. Then the black and white current version would cut in. And at the end, I would cut back to color and to 70 year old Ida leaving the Polin museum and traveling to the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków where she would stand in the back watching one of the concerts and the dancing. And she would bump into the jazz musician of her black and white youth and the movie finished as they had coffee together.

  5. I watched Ida yesterday and wandered whether you would have seen Bieganski in it, as well as what you would thought about the movie overall. I open your blog while sitting bored in a train and voila, all I thought about Ida expressed brilliantly as always.

  6. I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film

    THANK YOU DANUSHA! You expressed it spot-on. Ive just watched Ida and...I can hardly cope with what Pawlowski did with Wanda. Had he just held his peace but no, he had to tell the world who inspired this character. I have read an interview with Pawlowski in which he expresses his astonishment how on earth the Polish state would want to extradite such a nice old lady oO! It leaves one speechless. But than again, lets look at some facts: He and his family left Poland in 1971 and it appears he experienced no hardships abroad.No one whos family were not communist lackeys could get a passport back than... He spend most of his life abroad, not in Poland, he even admitted that his knowledge concerning Polish matters is far from perfect..Did You notice that there is a scence where Wanda is showing Ida some photos for her family (I guess) and appearently she is related to...Irena Sendler? Films such as Ida get funding, movies about Polish heroism...Gosh, there is this one movie about a Cursed Soldier, "Historia Roja" and its director has to look for funds on the internet! Jan Komasa, director of Miasto 44 (City 44 about the Warsaw Uprising) virtually had to beg for money in different places.... Sorry to say this, but we still need to do a thorough lustracja of f.e the Polish Film Institute! We have to get rid of communist family clans once and for all.

    Again about Wolinska/Wanda: I despise her because she had the chance to write at least a letter to Maria C. Fieldorf, daughter of one of her victims (and a Polish hero) and ask for her forgiveness. Instead she tried to used her Jewishness (although she was an atheist) as a shield for her crimes, called Poland an "antisemitic country" and all charges against her "rubish". I seriously hope there is a punishment for such creatures in the afterlife, I seriously do.

  7. I gave it some thought-the portrayal of Wanda reminds me a little bit of Japanese movies/anime: She is your middle-aged,slightly crazy, smoking,having a penchant for drinking aunt, living in an apartment with guys going in an out,her freezer is full of beer cans. She treats you like some sort of female rambo but actually she has a heart of gold. A truely likable character indeed.

    In this case, it is just sickening. I would really like to know how humanizing a nazi criminal (f.e Irma Grese or Maria Mandl) would be received.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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