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Displaced Persons: Ida's Window on Vanished Lives

by Megan Ratner

 Film Quarterly

Spring 2014

The Soviet experiment in the Eastern Bloc created a form
of displaced person who was different from the traditional
forced emigrant. As Czeslaw Milosz elegantly explains,
‘‘It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century
that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in
general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could
be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of
philosophy. Their bread, their work, their private lives
began to depend on this or that decision in disputes on
principles which, until then, they had never paid any
attention.’’1 People living behind the Iron Curtain (that
Cold War term for the Soviet zone) had to put the interests
of the state first while remaining fully aware that those
interests were mutable and easy to violate: the inadvertent
consequences of writing the wrong article or sharing a joke
with a friend could be dire. Survival, let alone security,
required constant dissembling.

In a mere 80 minutes, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013)
brings to life the startling range of dissemblings that
shunted people, inevitably, toward lesser or greater forms
of compromise. Or even outright betrayal. Long based
in the United Kingdom, Pawlikowski left Poland as a
teenager in the early 1970s. After several documentaries
and a series of contemporary dramas—Last Resort (2000),
My Summer of Love (2004), and The Woman in the Fifth
(2011)—Ida is Pawlikowski’s first feature set in Poland.
His perspective as a fortunate returnee, aware of his unlived
Polish life, plays a subtle part in a film titled for
someone who, effectively, does not exist. Pawlikowski
based the tale on people he knew and on his own background,
using a monochromatic palette to underline the
primacy of memory rather than history. Building the film
around the contradictions inherent in a troubled way of
life, Pawlikowski and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz
focus on the two greatest powers in Poland at the time: the
Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church.

But Ida is no polemic. Intimacy, privacy, and personal
choice inform this film, making it simultaneously a story of
identity and an ambivalent tribute to a vanished form of
society. Every shot conveys something of what it was to live
in a country still recovering from World War II, recently
emerged from Stalinism, and adjusting to indirect Soviet
rule. Pawlikowski uses the film frame to tell this aspect of
the story, as characters are rarely centered in the shot, often
pushed instead to the margins of the screen. Sometimes
part of a face or head dips below the bottom rim of the
frame, as if they are running out of room simply to be.
The spatial displacement becomes a visual metaphor for
the imposition of a fundamentally inhuman system and the
persistent low-level angst that shaped life in the Eastern
Bloc. Focusing Ida on a pair of very different women,
Pawlikowski gives a nuanced portrait of two cramped possibilities
for private life and private thought in such a system:
retreat into religion or into a double life (public loyalty
to the Party, private escape into casual sex and alcohol).

Ida is set in 1962, not long after Władysław Gomułka,First
Secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party, managed to convince the
Soviet Union of both Poland’s loyalty and thenecessity of
tailoring Polish Communism to Polish traditions.
This bargain, struck in 1956, changed Poland from
a Soviet puppet to a client state. According to Norman
Davies, there were ‘‘three specific features of the Polish
order—an independent Catholic Church, a free peasantry,
and a curious brand of bogus political pluralism.’’2 Davies
adds that ‘‘the position of the Roman Catholic Church in
Poland after the Second World War was stronger than at
any previous period of its thousand-year mission.’’3 The
intended plan was for Communism to prove itself superior,
causing these other three rivals to weaken and disappear;
eventually, of course, the opposite occurred.

Though Ida is true to its time, it can’t escape its audience’s
awareness that the system that looks monolithic to
its characters will, a few decades on, swiftly crumble. Its
cinematography signals this very fragility. Pawlikowski,
along with his directors of photography Łukasz Zal and
Ryszard Lenczewski, softens the black-and-white contrasts
into dreamlike charcoals and grays. The film looks
like snapshots come to life, with the occasional close-ups
held long enough to call to mind Chris Marker’s La Jetée
(1962), which like Ida pictures a world in which death
shadows life, where even an unknown past has a hold
on the present. Despite getting the details of its period
right, Ida never looks vintage; nor does it resemble, except
in its lack of color, actual films from the 1960s. In fact, it is
more melancholy than films made in the 1960s, for today’s
audience knows too much about the intervening fifty
years, in which even the defeat of Communism can hardly
be termed a success.

The story opens as novice Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska)
prepares to take her final vows. Her Mother Superior
(Halina Skoczyńska) insists that Anna visit her mother’s
sister Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), Anna’s only living
relative. She tells her that Wanda refused the convent’s
request that she take her infant niece and has shunned any
contact over eighteen years. The Mother Superior does not
reveal that Anna’s aunt is a demoted state prosecutor, whose
punitive zeal earned her the nickname ‘‘Red Wanda.’’
Making her way through the deep snow around the
convent in her anachronistically severe postulant habit and
outsized suitcase, Anna looks like the banished child in
a fairy tale, heading off toward some kind of wickedness.
She observes the world through a tram window en route to
her aunt’s place, her modest veil and plain habit a kind of
armor. In this first half of the film, Anna is often behind
glass or framed by a window, at a remove from life. Other
than a photograph of her infant self in her mother’s arms,
Anna’s only evidence of her mother’s existence is a jagged
stained-glass window, part of what was the family farmhouse,
with each window, of course, another frame,
another way of cropping out part of life, of having only
a limited view. Pawlikowski may tread lightly with the
symbolism, but living behind glass aptly describes life in
the Soviet satellite states.

Anna’s arrival at the door to Wanda’s flat sets up a pattern
of approach and retreat, another fairy-tale aspect of
their relationship. There is nothing magical or surreal
about Ida, yet throughout there are images suggestive of
fairy tales, of the folk-tale alternative to history, often
anathema to tyrannies and organized religion. The references
may be more suggestive than manifest, but like
a fairy-tale heroine, Anna’s story finally turns on luck.
Smoking, blocking the entryway, Wanda coolly gives
her niece the once-over. The wariness characterizes Wanda,
but is also shorthand for any encounter with someone
new in the society at the time. In a system in which people
were encouraged to keep tabs on each other, anyone unfamiliar,
blood relation or not, was initially best kept at arm’s
length. As they make their way to the kitchen, Wanda says
nothing to or about a man dressing on the edge of the
rumpled daybed, his exit barely acknowledged. The chilly
start makes Wanda’s revelation—Anna’s birth family is
Jewish, her given name Ida Lebenstein—comfortless.
After virtually expelling her, Wanda tracks Anna down
as she waits at the bus station and brings her back to her
place. Showing her family photographs, Wanda suggests
that together they make the trip that Anna is planning to
make, to find her parents’ graves. ‘‘They have no graves,’’
Wanda reminds her. ‘‘Neither they nor any Jews . . . ’’

Much of Ida has the feeling of old-fashioned photographs,
where priority was often given to place over people.
Once Anna and Wanda are out on the road, shot after
shot foregrounds the land around them, inhospitable and
barely populated. The women seem shrunken, minuscule.
On this trip, where their Jewishness becomes defining,
Wanda especially seems alien and unwanted, despite her
family having farmed this land. Because Anna remains
veiled, she is treated like a full-fledged nun and even asked
for a blessing. But she too seems rattled by the surroundings,
as if the violence visited on her family were somehow
working its way into her.

Kerchiefed, glamorous, and chain smoking, Wanda
makes an undeniably worldly counterpart to her prim
niece. As she drives through the wooded countryside, she
asks Anna about any ‘‘sinful thoughts,’’ wondering how
valid ‘‘those vows of yours’’ can be if she hasn’t even tried
sex or dancing. As if to counteract Wanda’s suggestions,
they stop at a roadside shrine, where Anna falls to her
knees while Wanda smokes near the car. Each clings to
the outward signs of what sets her apart. Like many
others, this shot has the feel of a vernacular snapshot, like
something glimpsed from a passing car.

In subsequent scenes, it is Anna who seems older and
more experienced, with the middle-aged Wanda eager to
hold on to any shred of youth still available. Yet a brief
courtroom scene shows Wanda as a committed hard-liner.
Taken together, Wanda and Anna offer a subtle take on
the options for women in the supposedly egalitarian
people’s democracies, where, despite surface equality, the
real power still rested with men. Both women reflect the
ways their environment has shaped them: obedience and
piety for Anna, bullying and cynicism for Wanda. Undone
by their grim inquiry, each resorts to a familiar solace:
several stiff shots for Wanda, the church for Anna.
At the family’s erstwhile farmhouse, current occupant
Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski) denies that any Jews ever
lived there, even though Wanda’s questions never mentioned
Jews. Nothing is straightforward. Feliks’s family
hid the Lebensteins, then, fearful of being exposed,
decided to kill them. (Davies points out that ‘‘the wartime
holocaust also consumed the greater part of Polish
Jewry—almost one half of the total victims.’’)4 ‘‘I can
destroy you,’’ Wanda tells the uncooperative Feliks as
Anna looks on. So little has changed in the landscape and
the town, they could be talking months rather than years
after World War II. Wanda recognizes she will have to
track down his father, the man who actually hid Anna’s
parents.

When Wanda later drives into a ditch, her alcohol level
so high she is forced to sleep in jail, Anna ends up on
the local priest’s makeshift cot. He knows why they are
in town and asks if she has some connection to a, ‘‘No,
nothing.’’ Sitting on the cot, her head sinks to the very
bottom of the frame as if under the weight of her denial.
Observing the subservience of the arresting officer when
he realizes that Wanda’s claim to immunity was valid,
Anna asks who she is. ‘‘Nobody these days,’’ Wanda says,
recalling her former clout. They both seem almost exhausted,
aware that whatever they discover will likely be
something they would wish they didn’t know.

When saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) joins the two
of them, first as a hitchhiker in the back seat, later as part
of the entertainment in their pokey hotel, his lighthearted
character tempers the seriousness of the story. Life for Lis
is no more than a series of gigs. Anna’s sacred uniform
holds no special gravity for him. Instead, the character of
Lis stands in for the way that people are able to muddle
through, even under a repressive regime: he is harmless,
seemingly untouched by the history that threatens to
engulf Wanda and Anna. Ogrudnik plays him with
appropriately cheeky diffidence.

Jazzed like a teenager, Wanda has a good time dressing
up, encouraging Anna to drop her guard and ditch her
habit. Each is desperate in her own way and desperately
identifying with what sets them apart from the other. In
the course of the film, Wanda and Anna’s relationship
oscillates from frosty tolerance to sisterly amusement and
even soothing affection. Kulesza is the undisputed dynamo
of the film, her acting on a par with Jeanne Moreau and
Simone Signoret and, given the period, invoking both.

Like them, she combines ferocity and eroticism, resulting
in a complex character who is selfish, maddening, occasionally
lethal, and terribly sympathetic. First-timer
Trzebuchowska has a tougher brief: she is given an
unformed person to work with, yet manages to register
the unsettling transformations in Anna’s life with precision
and grace. Pawlikowski, using very little dialogue
but staging startling performances, shows an unusually
complicated on-screen female relationship in which the
man plays only a secondary role.

Wanda drinks and flirts, finally shooing away the partner
she danced with all night as she stumbles back to their
room. Anna disapproves in the way of someone inexperienced,
someone who believes in ritual and ceremony. ‘‘I’m
a slut and you’re a little saint,’’ Wanda says, adding that
‘‘this Jesus of yours adored people like me,’’ in a pivotal
scene of the film. Wanda’s despair is a combination of what
happened to her and of what she has done to others. She
knows there is no life without sin, that no one is spared;
Anna, in her smug naivete, still feels exempt.

Wanda’s comments, and a brief tussle over the Bible,
propel Anna out of the room and to the ballroom where
the band is winding down with John Coltrane’s ‘‘Naima.’’
Fragments of music are key in Ida. The selections, which
include Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Italian and American
pop, and jazz, convey the ways the Western world seeped
into Poland, no matter how much the Party legislated
against decadent influences. For Wanda it is a distraction,
for Anna a provocation, as the music from the dance floor
reaches her, luring her into conversation with Lis.
Wanda rejects Anna’s easy piety as false, knowing that
Anna remains untested by temptation, by suffering, or
even by being Jewish. Faced with Wanda’s toughness,
Anna chooses to look away, even to absent herself, disavowing
her own connection to Wanda. Only when they
confront Szymon (Jerzy Trela), Feliks’s hospitalized
father, does Anna identify herself as Ida. Pressuring bedridden
Szymon, Wanda becomes the stony-faced prosecutor
again, but speculating on the details of her family’s
murder, she collapses (dropping partly below the frame
of the shot). Halfway through the film, they finally touch
each other, Anna maternally cradling Wanda in the stark
hospital hallway.

Only after Wanda’s collapse does Anna stop watching
and begin to take action, bartering Feliks’s dodgy claim to
the property against unearthing her family’s remains.
Though she offers no argument to his justifications, neither
will she shake on the deal. Feliks’s flat declarations
that ‘‘No one can prove anything anyway’’ and ‘‘What
happened, happened’’ are all too reflective of the historic
denials about complicity with slaughter that remain unresolved
well into the twenty-first century.

Trooping across a large meadow toward the woods, the
silhouetted figures of Feliks, Anna and, reluctantly, Wanda,
once again suggest a fairy-tale fate. ‘‘Why am I not
here?’’ Anna’s question—after Feliks digs up the
bones—seeks rational explanation in what was irrational.
‘‘You were tiny. No one would know you were Jewish,’’
whereas her cousin, Wanda’s son, was ‘‘dark and circumcised.’’
Her survival was a matter of chance.

Burying the remains in the family plot in a neglected
Jewish cemetery, Anna and Wanda reach a kind of peace
with each other, even a gentle tenderness. Leaving Anna at
the convent, Wanda gives her a brief, close hug, the two of
them more peers than aunt and niece. Their experiences
together over a few days have been largely unspoken, but
profoundly affecting. Presence and absence have equal
weight in this film, which is reflected in the unseen dead
and the spare dialogue. Pawlikowski is refreshingly
unafraid of silence.

In her own way, each woman separately reels from her
discovery. Anna’s brush with the outside world, including
a delicate flirtation with Lis, is enough to sow doubt. She
becomes distracted, eventually putting off her vows. Meanwhile,
Wanda resorts to any diversion, finally laying the
family photographs out like a game of Solitaire. Instead of
bringing resolution, the proper burial seems to do the
opposite, serving to make life impossible. With devastating
efficiency, Wanda opens wide her windows, puts on her
fur-collared overcoat, and jumps.

Later, alone in Wanda’s apartment, Anna tidies up,
then sheds her habit, dresses in Wanda’s things, smokes
and drinks. In this brief sequence, she transforms from girl
to woman, in a certain way, keeping Wanda alive. At the
funeral, veil-less for the first time publicly, Anna listens to
officials extol Wanda as ‘‘the faithful handmaiden against
anti-Socialism.’’ Over strains of the Internationale, she notices
Lis. They dance to Coltrane and wind up in bed,
where Lis offers Anna a life together. They can ‘‘get a dog,
get married, have children, get a house’’—‘‘And then?’’—
‘‘The usual. Life.’’

Encasing herself again in her habit, Anna leaves him
and sets off on foot. The film’s last scene is an extended
handheld tracking shot of Anna as she walks from the city
to the country in twilight, her face occasionally illuminated
by passing headlights. Her decision to return to the convent
is a kind of independence. Even Wanda might
approve. It circles back to the opening of the film, when
Anna is seen painting and then helping to install a statue of
Jesus on the convent grounds, subject to the rigid faith she
has known since childhood. Confidence has replaced her
initial meekness. Walking on her own, she has chosen this
path rather than obeyed. Her action is no longer rote.
The erased Ida Lebenstein stands in for the Jewish
wartime victims as well as the psychologically displaced
persons of Communist Poland, hectored by the state into
conformity. Pawlikowksi offers no neat resolution, only
indelible characters and exquisite images that pay tribute
to what has been irretrievably lost.

Notes
1. Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko
(New York: Vintage, 1990),3.
2. Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9
3. Ibid., 10.
4. Ibid., 88.