If a more serious Jim Jarmusch made a road movie about a nun, a judge, and a musician in 1960s Poland, the result might be close to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. Shot in square, black-and-white long takes, the film is named after its cloistered but wide-eyed heroine (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun-in-training who is granted leave from her convent before taking her vows. In a liberalizing Warsaw, but still in her coif and tunic, she meets her aunt Wanda, a boozed-up Stalinist judge (lent a world-weary charm by Agata Kulesza), who tells Ida of her true origins: that she was born Jewish during the war and given up for adoption when her parents were killed. Together the two women—instinctively drawn to each other as parable-like opposites, one an archetype of innocence, the other of cynicism—drive across the Polish steppe. They pick up a young saxophonist and visit the farm where Ida was born in order to unearth the past.
Despite the wartime trauma at the film’s core, and the totalitarian shroud of its surface, what is most surprising about Ida is its ghostly yet restorative beauty. This derives in part from the film’s barren and unpeopled landscapes. It also comes from the saintly, Dreyer-like innocence of its heroine, for whom everything is a first. But it is also because Pawlikowski, who left Poland when he was 14 and has lived most of his life in Western Europe, has returned, in Ida, to the quieter world he knew as a boy. In so doing he has also fashioned a cinematic retreat for all of us—a hushed escape from the glare and noise of the present.
Joshua Sperling (Rail): As with much of your other work, this film is very sparse—with very few characters against a barren landscape. What draws you to that aesthetic?
Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s just in my nature. I can only imagine three characters at a time. All my films reflect that limitation. But more importantly I also like to create a world that’s a little bit lapidary and abstract—a world that’s not an exact replica of reality. I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to pretend everything is real, with extras doing stuff in the background. I prefer fewer elements. There’s also less of a story in Ida. Well there is a story—but it’s more of a meditation. This is a film to look at, to take in and absorb. I shot most scenes in one shot, I didn’t shoot in order to cut and mix. I didn’t bother with the usual narrative connections. It’s just one thing after another.
Rail: The cinematography is especially striking: the format, the stillness, the framing. When did that minimalism come into your thinking about the project?
Pawlikowski: It was there all the time—from the very beginning. I wanted the film to be minimal in dramatic terms, in visual terms, in terms of dialogue. A lot of the process was actually one of stripping things away. There’s a lot the film doesn’t do. The camera doesn’t move very much. The film doesn’t show things in reverse or in close up. The dialogue doesn’t explain too much. I wanted to keep a balance where you know just the right amount to imagine the rest.
Rail: What are the influences—the roots—behind this style? Or did it just come organically?
Pawlikowski: It came organically. But I’ve been watching films for 40 years now. Obviously I saw Dreyer at some point, Bergman.
Pawlikowski: Bresson, yes. But the framing in Ida—I actually had never seen something quite like that before. It’s off-center with a lot of air. For me, I was simply following my intuition. It was the nature of the beast. I was thinking of how to frame things interestingly with the 4:3 format, which can’t do landscape—or not much of landscape. How can you use that format to create a sense of place? What happens is that the landscape becomes more vertical. And this suited the film very well in some way.
Rail: When I visited Poland many years ago I was struck by how flat and expansive the countryside was. It’s a bold choice not to shoot that landscape in wide-screen.
Pawlikowski: But it wasn’t really about Poland. I chose the format for faces, for not showing too much to start with, for limiting the field of vision. It’s good for portraits and double portraits. It can’t encompass horizontal landscape, which is how we see the world. So within that limitation I thought, “Okay, let’s see what happens if we tilt up and have some air in the frame above the characters.” There wasn’t a theory behind it. It just felt right—the theories come later.
Rail: Something about the photography in Ida reminded me of Vivre Sa Vie (1962), the Godard film. In both your film and Godard’s the camera placements feel almost arbitrary—or at any rate inscrutable.
Pawlikowski: That’s true. I liked that film a lot. It’s my favorite Godard. I remember a feeling in it of something approaching randomness—but it wasn’t randomness at all. With the framing in Ida, I wanted to do something that felt totally necessary and yet totally accidental at the same time—as if God made it that way. In a sense I’m more interested in developing aesthetic criteria than actually directing. I always say that if a shot looks too much like a normal film, then there’s too much lighting, or the sets are too elaborate, or the actors are acting too much. I move away from things that feel too designed and proportionate. The framing reflects that.
Rail: The minimalism in narrative lends Ida an archetypal quality, almost like a folk-tale. And yet it’s also a film that will be seen, inevitably, from a historical and national perspective. How would you describe your relationship to Poland?
Pawlikowski: Poland is where I grew up. And I’ve always felt Polish even though I’ve spent most of my life abroad. I left when I was 14. So Poland of the early 1960s, the period of the film, was the world I first experienced as a child. Even though I was young I experienced that world very vividly. I’m always thinking about it, imagining it.
Rail: I couldn’t help but view Ida through a then-and-now lens. When I visited Poland a few years ago I was surprised by how modern, dynamic, and Western it felt—so unlike the universe of the film. Especially since it has entered the European Union, the country seems to have transformed itself very rapidly.
Pawlikowski: You’re right that there is a contrast between the film and modern reality. But I don’t think this only applies to Poland. I think a lot of people—not just in Poland but everywhere—have a craving for simplicity, for silence, or at least the absence of noise. They don’t want too much movement. The world today is so hectic, out of control and noisy. And especially films: they try to draw attention to themselves in an audio-visual environment that’s already about grabbing and fighting for your attention.
Rail: The white noise—
Pawlikowski: The noise, the colors, the movement. It’s cut-cut-cut. I made this film because I don’t enjoy that world. So in a way it’s a bit of an escapist film. It’s the kind of film I want to see. And a lot of other people seem to have been responding to it as well. Not the huge masses of course! But in France Ida broke the record for ticket sales for a Polish film.
Rail: What’s so fascinating is that this preference for quiet and silence is built into the film itself: not only in its aesthetic, but also in Ida’s final decision (which I won’t go into because I don’t want to give away the ending) and in the way the historical mood is conveyed. It’s drab and bleak, which fits with our ideas about the Eastern Bloc, about totalitarian regimes. But there’s also something very inviting about it.
Pawlikowski: I don’t find that world to be sober. I actually find it to be really beautiful—much more beautiful than the pink or salmon-colored world of today. To me, the simpler, the clearer, the more concrete, the better.
Rail: I feel very similarly to you. But this is also where the film can become controversial to some. A Polish friend of mine said he really liked the film, and found it very beautiful, but he objected to its politics. In particular he thought it was turning a real-life political monster, which he saw in the figure of aunt Wanda (the Stalinist judge), into someone sympathetic and likable.
Pawlikowski: Well she was only vaguely based on real people. She was a composite of many characters.
Rail: But what do you say to people who choose to see the film politically, rather than aesthetically?
Pawlikowski: Those objections tend to come from people who have strong opinions about that period. Some say that it’s anti-Polish because it’s a Polish guy who killed the Jewish family during the war. Others say that it’s anti-Semitic because I made the Stalinist judge Jewish. And still others say it’s anti-feminist because I made her a female judge. A lot of these people just wanted me to make a different film. But I don’t see this world in black-and-white terms. Maybe in politics I would, but I think the advantage, the beauty, and the duty of art is to actually seek a kind of psychological truth, to stay true to the complexities and paradoxes of life, rather than turning life into cartoons.
Rail: And yet, what’s so interesting is that the three characters represent three archetypes. There’s the nun, the judge, and the musician. So it’s a bit like a parable. But they also represent three specific historical ideologies. You have the Catholic Church on the one hand, Communism on the other, and then this third force of Western-looking rebellion and romanticism.
Pawlikowski: The beatnik.
Rail: Yes, the beatnik. And what is odd is that in the contemporary West, or at least in our urban culture, the first two forces are more or less dead. Religious devotion and political conviction have given way to a consumerist version of self-fashioning and self-fulfillment. It’s almost like the hippie rebellion represented by the musician, which started out as genuine and subversive, has led to the cultural noise you were just talking about.
Pawlikowski: But in the early 1960s it was still a force for liberation. Jazz was very powerful then. I continue to love Jazz today, but it’s all a question of context. Culture can do different things at different times.
Rail: I suppose what I’m getting at is that despite the totalitarian pall of the film, there’s also this utopian undercurrent of creativity and youth. And it’s paradoxical because the two seem to go together. On the one hand the film shows how totalitarianism is bad and corrupts people and makes them commit suicide. On the other hand it also shows how in such an environment self-expression takes on a dangerous, revolutionary meaning. I found myself almost longing to live inside the film’s world.
Pawlikowski: I’m glad you feel this. Poland at that time was very interesting. Stalinism ended in ’56, quite sharply. And suddenly the Gomulka came back and there was a hope there might be socialism with a human face. Quite soon it became clear that it was a bit shabby and it was still a police state. But there was a margin of freedom that suddenly emerged. Not to start a new political party or anything, but in culture. And young people grabbed it with great intensity—not just in music, but everywhere. The literature of that period is brilliant. It wasn’t imitative of the West or of the East. It was Poland at its most creative and original. In theater there was Kantor, Grotowski. In jazz there were great musicians from ’56 onwards. And Polish cinema was at its best. It wasn’t a utopia of course, but it was an exciting moment. There’s no such thing as “ideal conditions,” but very often when an authoritarian regime relents a little, it’s the most interesting time for culture. Something similar has happened, for example, in Iran. And I wanted to hint at that and in a way I wanted the film to be made in that spirit as well. It doesn’t try to suck up to the West, or to the East, or to the Polish patriots. I wanted to make a film that has its own logic and feels totally uninhibited.