With commendable courage, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, “Ida,” explores a still-volatile theme in Poland–antisemitism in the country’s very-Catholic culture. Seventy years after the defeat of the Nazis, it is still a matter of debate if the majority Polish Catholic citizens were enthusiastic collaborators during the Nazi occupation in the extermination of Polish Jews after the German conquest of their country in 1939.
Though there were priests and nuns, as well as individual Catholics, most notably the Red Cross nurse, Irena Sendler, who behaved heroically to save Jewish lives, the Catholic hierarchy in Poland was openly antisemitic and did not protest the mistreatment of Jews in the country. Meanwhile, the Jewish population in Poland was reduced through genocide from three million to 300,000, while the nation served as host to the highest number of concentration camps in Europe, including, and most notoriously, Auschwitz.
Alarmingly, despite this grim legacy, Poland appears to almost giddily antisemitic. In 2013, the Center for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University reported that 63% of the population believes in a Jewish conspiracy aimed at world domination. This same research indicates, however, that 90% of Poles have never actually met anybody Jewish.
The same year, as reported on CNN and other news outlets, fans of a Polish football club chanted: “Move on, Jews! Your home is at Auschwitz! Send you to the gas (chamber)!” Though public expressions of antisemitism are illegal in Poland, astonishingly, the local prosecutor chose not to press criminal charges.
Consequently, filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski merits high praise for his confrontation of this issue. It is worth noting, however, that though Pawlikowski regards himself as Catholic, he has stated that he is closer to the Roman Catholicism of Great Britain, where he lived for many years, than the more reactionary faith of his native Poland.
Indeed, Pawlikowski’s pretext for exploring Polish anti-Semitism in “Ida” is through the religion itself. His story begins in the early 1960s when a young novice named Anna, a former orphan who was raised in the convent, is informed by her prioress that she must meet her only surviving relative, an aunt, as a condition for Anna’s final commitment to her vows.
Thus, she travels to Warsaw, and is received by her only blood relative, Wanda, who promptly informs the novice that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, that she is Jewish, and that her family had been massacred during the German occupation. Anna/Ida decides that she must find where her parents are buried and Wanda agrees to help her.
Wanda and Ida represent an intentionally disparate dialectic. Ida is young, a virgin, idealistic, naive about life and the world, and very religiously Roman Catholic. Wanda, a judge for the state, is middle-aged, sexually promiscuous, she smokes as well as drinks, is non-religiously Jewish, and has a generally cynical temperament. How their mutual journey impacts their lives constitutes the principle drama in “Ida.”
However, beyond antisemitism, for Pawlikowski and his screenwriter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, a larger theme in “Ida” involves the uncertainty of Polish identity in a country that was brutalized by both Hitler and Stalin.
For example, Wanda is scarred by the murder of her infant son during the war. However, her role as a judge under Communism is not to administer justice, but to facilitate the execution of citizens who are considered political enemies. Her actual political sympathies are irrelevant, because for her it is a question of survival. Later, she discovers that the same Poles who attempted to provide refuge for her family were also their murderers, motivated out of a fear for their own lives.
There is also the issue of religious and cultural identity. At first very loyal to the religion she has known her entire life, Ida begins to question it after the horror of her family’s history is revealed to her. This prompts her to defy some of her most sacred values–she loses her virginity and has an affair with a Jazz musician–but without any satisfaction, or even pleasure.
The film is only 80 minutes, and it is to the credit of Pawlikowski that he did not feel the need to inflate his simple but potent story with an excess of material in order to impress critics and film festival juries. The exquisite black and white cinematography in the movie, courtesy of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, creates an appropriately somber mood. There are moments in which Pawlikowski is more pictorial in the composition of his images than the story calls for, but “Ida” proves to be powerful and memorable experience nonetheless.
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