“Ghost, ghost I know you live within me
I feel you as you fly
In thunder clouds above the city
Into one that I love
With all that was left within me
Until we tore in two
Now wings and rings and there’s so many
Waiting here for you.”
– “Ghost” by Neutral Milk Hotel (from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)
Before I can delve into Ida, (a gorgeous, chilly, and haunting look at Poland after World War II), I must spend a substantial length of time discussing other works of art. You see, a certain line of criticism states that we have reached a point of saturation when it comes to films about the despicable inhumanity of the Holocaust. This view has always rankled me a bit. I do not believe we can ever have too much intelligent, passionate, outraged art on any subject, and certainly not when it comes to the most horrific genocide of modern times. I will concede that we can do without any more films that misappropriate the Holocaust, by using it as a background tragedy for romantic trysts (The Reader), exploiting it for bathos (The Boy In the Striped Pajamas), or exploring its untapped comedic possibilities (Life Is Beautiful). But, I vehemently disagree that art is done having its way with the 20th century’s most harrowing act of inhumanity. The problem is not oversaturation, but that too many accounts of the Holocaust are so toothless in grappling with its full horror. Too rarely does the treatment fit the crime. One of the very best documents of the genocide is the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by the alternative rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. Apart from brief references to places and the time period, the album stays away from historical specifics. Like a musical version of Picasso’s Guernica, it is horror seen through a thick, distorting glass. It is a fever dream account of the atrocities Anne Frank suffered. Though it is tinged with sorrow, its dominant emotion is a kind of keening madness that borders on Dadaism. It does not contain names like Hitler or Himmler or Goebbels, but it shivers and wails with the knowledge that entire generations of people could be eradicated by the beastly inhumanity of a single political movement. This, to my mind, is the response the Holocaust should provoke in us. It should have us tearing our hair out at its visceral cruelty, not rubbing our chins somberly at the philosophical implications of it all. And so, all of this is to say that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a document of genocide that can stand proudly with the best works of art on that subject. While it has the appearance of a stately film, and is certainly a more traditional document of genocide than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it also succeeds by way of implying more than it shows. It manages to convey horror and sorrow in a way that is no less visceral for being subdued.
Ida takes place in Poland in the 1960s, but its mind is always looking twenty years back. Ida begins as the story of Anna, a young novice in a Polish convent, becomes the story of Ida Lebenstein, and ends with a young girl’s identity in flux. Ida, it turns out, is Anna. This birth name is the moth-balled heritage that Anna’s deceased Jewish parents bequeathed to her, though she does not remember ever knowing them. She has been raised by the good Christian mothers and sisters at her convent almost since infancy, and when we first see her, painting an unfinished statue of Jesus Christ, she is a week away from taking her vows. The Mother Superior insists that, before committing to the life of a nun, Anna experience some of the outside world and meet the aunt she never knew she had. Anna reluctantly agrees, but seems to have little doubt that she is destined to live her life as a devout follower of Christ. Anna goes to the Warsaw apartment of her only living relative and finds an immediate foil to her own piety and reserved nature. Her aunt is an acerbic, boozy, promiscuous magistrate judge named Wanda Cruz (brilliantly played by Agata Kulesza). Moments after meeting her for the first time, Wanda informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that she is a Jew. Her parents were among many Jews killed by their own Polish countrymen during the war and they are buried somewhere near the farmhouse the family used to own. Ida expresses a desire to visit their graves, which lie unmarked somewhere in the Polish countryside where the family used to live, and Wanda agrees to take her. So it is that Ida becomes a mournful, sobering, quietly livid road trip through 1960s Poland and into the even more distant past.
Along the way, the film becomes a study in the way that the Holocaust not only eradicated entire generations, but bruised, distorted, and mangled the identities of those who remained. As a magistrate, Wanda uses her political muscle to get answers about where her sister and brother-in-law are buried. She cajoles and bullies and barely conceals her simmering rage. We cannot blame her. The Poland Wanda moves through does not seem remotely apologetic about the tragedies that many of them facilitated and perpetrated. A local bartender refuses Wanda any answers and apologizes. Wanda asks him why he is apologizing, and he clarifies that this is just something one says. Wanda would survive Nazism and rise to a position of power as a member of the Communist political elite. However, that political influence has not brought her happiness nor sated her anguish at seeing loved ones murdered. Instead, she has become what she hated: an authority figure helping a political movement to exterminate those it deems threatening. She has tried to drown out the trauma of the past by fully embracing the perks of her high position. She has escaped the wake of Hitler’s regime and can now fill her life with merriment, drink and fornication. She often mocks Ida for her naïve notions of purity and spirituality. Wanda has seen behind the curtain of human cruelty and cannot understand why anyone would choose a life of selfless devotion to humanity. Kulesza’s turn is so spell-bindingly sardonic and vital that it took me half the film before I could see the tragedy behind her salty exuberance. Ida’s notions of Christian charity may be waylaid and simplistic, but Wanda’s secular swinger’s life is hollow to the core. It is her braying, desperate attempt to block the sounds of the ghettos and the camps from her ears, and it has been an abject failure. Ida is the story of what genocide does to the psyche, told through the focused fury of two amazing female characters. In Wanda’s case, Ida becomes a story about how all-engulfing the aftermath of war and death can be. When one has lived through certain experiences, no amount of wealth, power, sex, or drink can blunt them.
While Wanda fumes and pushes for clues, young Ida takes a passive stance, taking everything in with equal doses of horror and curiosity. In embarking on the simple mission to find a burial site, Wanda is guiding Ida backwards into a Poland that has been concealed from her. Outside the convent walls, she sees a nation filled with collaborators and cowards. She sees a Poland too ashamed to speak frankly about its role in the Holocaust and too pig-headedly proud to make a full apology. A lot of people died and they were all there to witness it, but the polite thing to do is not to press them to discuss it further. The country she sees makes a show of being conciliatory toward what happened to the Jews, but that same country took her true identity away from her and placed her in the safe haven of a less-persecuted religious tradition. In one scene, as Ida and Wanda are just leaving the farm house where her Jewish parents were murdered, a local woman sees her habit and asks her to bless her infant child. The past is never past. The Nazis may be gone, but the traces of their bigotry still hang in the air. A quiet Christian is met with a smile and a warm greeting. An inquisitive Jew is met with hostility and stubborn reticence. Ida is a film about looking to the past for closure and finding that none exists. Some wounds cannot ever heal over. The horror that was will always be a horror. And the apology Ida and Wanda seek and deserve will always come out in mumbles.
If any of this sounds like a dry or academic experience, then I have not done full justice to the gorgeous and forlorn cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Ida’s black and white textures are sometimes as brittle and crisp as a cold morning. At other times, they are as murky and jet-black as a tomb. As Ida’s two wonderful actresses give us a potent portrait of two women plunging into the despair of the recent past, the camera work conjures a landscape that is alternately haunted and hostile. Characters are often framed at the very bottom of the screen, with canyons of empty space above their heads. They are just as often shot from a distance, moving like tiny blips on a desolate, impersonal landscape. If Ida is about looking to Poland’s past, Zal and Lenczewski make that past feel cavernous, ominous, and inscrutable. Most importantly, all that empty space and silence allow us to see the film’s most important characters: the ones who are no longer there. Ida captures the full horror of the Holocaust not in depicting its atrocities, but in using negative space to help us conceive of the most massive loss of life in known history. Instead of a wall of anguished noise, Ida makes its tragedy felt through silence and through the gaping open spaces of its haunting cinematography.
As Wanda sits in that cafe, sipping angrily at her shot and pumping closeted bigots for information about the tragedy they would just as soon forget, a figure walks by on the street outside. We do not get a good look at his face. It may be a real person, but it could just as well be an apparition. A spectral reminder of those who used to walk here, of those who could have walked here and never will. In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a character optimistically points out that a life saved will allow entire generations to exist in the future. This is a good and humane thought in a tremendous film, but Ida remembers the ghastly flip side of this insight. There are an uncountable number of human beings who will never be born because of what happened. Perhaps their ghosts walk those streets too. There may be certain Holocaust stories that do not need to be told again, but I maintain we will always need Holocaust art like ida. Poised somewhere between an anguished sob and a whispered invective, Ida regards the tragedy with the kind of evergreen shock and disgust it deserves. Stories of survival are important and should be celebrated, but Ida is too incensed and heart-broken to bother with such anomalies. Those may be wonderful stories from the Holocaust, but they are not and never will be the story of the Holocaust. Ida is an anti-survival film. In exploring Poland in the years just after World War II, it becomes the act of exhuming a grave. Ida moves quietly and quickly, like a perfect short story, but its silence and frigid open spaces are filled with an unrelenting fire. In its protagonist’s focused, seemingly placid gaze, there is a vast reservoir of condemnation for Poland and for any nation that would lend its hand to genocide. Ida refuses closure, but it contemplates a fitting punishment for the silent patrons of that Polish café. Those who participated in the Holocaust in their own small ways and now sit refusing to acknowledge it. They have kept their lives, but the ghosts will always outnumber them.