Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
In a black-and-white film, throwaway comments about eye or hair color are distracting at best, like little asides to the audience whispering that yes, She is pretty. In practice they recall Sonya’s lament of the fate of ugly women: “When a woman is ugly, people say to her, ‘You have beautiful eyes, you have beautiful hair.'” I was disappointed at first by what appeared to be just such a comment from Wanda (Kulesza) to her apparently redheaded niece, Anna (Trzebuchowska). But Pawlikowski refuses to leave it there; the camera returns a few times to Anna’s hair, and each time the sense of intimacy is overwhelming. Typically strict, as befits a novice, she wears a wimple except when she bathes or sleeps. We see her without it while she’s lying in bed at the convent, and she is a different person. But in one scene, much later on, she unties her hair from atop her head and lets it fall over her shoulder. Pawlikowski keeps his camera a little high at all times, where the actions of people are at the bottom and the world above them fills the frame; it’s a little jarring, but the more it happens the more it feels like a statement about emptiness. In this shot, we get as close as we ever will to a typical Hollywood closeup. With her hair over her shoulder, Anna is almost glamorous. We’ll find her in bed with a handsome saxophone player later in the movie—everyone’s privates are tastefully hidden—but when we see her hair the movie changes entirely. The film is about uncovering a secret; her hair is an objective correlative, so elegantly simple, so Yeatsian, that it’s utterly breathtaking. The film is in the end as much about covering that secret up again. Anna is not unaffected by the exposed truths of her infancy, but in the end she turns from them. In the last two minutes of the film, we watch her fix her wimple, pushing her hair up underneath it. Too often, fiction imagines that the profoundly new creates change in our everyday lives; Ida is an uncharacteristically welcome dose of castor oil for that premise.
The premise of the film is simple, and the movie wastes no time getting to it. Anna is days away from taking her vows when she is ordered by the prioress to see her aunt; Aunt Wanda is all the things that Anna isn’t. Where Anna will retreat from society, Wanda was a relatively notorious judge. Where Anna will reject the vices of the world, Wanda is amenable to one-night stands and positively infatuated with cigarettes and booze. It goes without saying that Wanda has left God behind. Anna wonders why Wanda, her closest family, did not keep her when she was orphaned; Wanda bluntly says that she had no inclination for motherhood, and that Anna was doubtless better raised by the nuns. Pawlikowski keeps the dialogue to a minimum about these differences. We open with Anna and three other nuns renovating a statue of Jesus, placing him in his appropriate spot, and making the sign of the cross on themselves afterwards. Wanda is introduced with a scene where a man leaves her apartment while Anna is just arriving; a characteristic scene of hers puts her in a lonely bar, ordering one last drink and then ordering another. The differences between the two women are almost caricatures, but the story reels both in. They are united through a shared past that Wanda shares with Anna, who isn’t really Anna. Her given name is Ida, she learns, and her parents were Jews killed during the Holocaust. There’s a boy in the photographs as well. Did I have a brother? Ida asks. No, Wanda says, and in the negative all is revealed.
The emptiness in front of Pawlikowski’s frequently canted camera is the same idea as what remains of Poland itself. The land is empty. Wanda and Ida crisscross across the countryside and find nary another human being to talk to; Wanda is able to stop the car at a fork in the road when Ida wants to get out to pay homage at a roadside cross. When Wanda drunkenly swerves her car into a ditch, it takes a team of horses to pull the car out. And in her bar where she orders one last drink and then another, the only other people in the joint are an old bearded fellow and the bartender. It is the 1960s by now, but the war—unsaid, just as the Nazis and the Holocaust and Stalin are unsaid—appears to have cleared the world in its postapocalyptic fashion. It’s an eerily quiet movie, and the individuals of the film do not speak much or speak loudly. In this world of hushed restraint, where silence is most often the only appropriate response, the film makes Wanda’s forcefulness disturbingly loud. The world is attending a wake and Wanda crashes it even when she is just leaning back and taking a drink. Until she tells Ida “No,” it seems that she’s simply disinterested in mourning for what the rest of the world is mourning for; after that, the world is unveiled and the silent tears are years too late.
The only exceptions to the quietness of Ida are the musicians. Wanda and Anna pick up a hitchhiking musician en route to a gig, who would be sexy even if he didn’t tell them he played saxophone. (That he does appeals to Wanda, who doesn’t hide her appreciation.) They play, for the most part, a mostly raucous jazz set for a thinly attended celebration of the town’s anniversary; it’s been around, as far as I can tell, for centuries, and from the state of the party it doesn’t look like it’ll last into the 21st Century. The lead singer of the group is a blonde woman with a permanent scowl and eye makeup which I hadn’t seen outside Daisies. Even if the rest of the band is playing Coltrane or trying to rev up motors, the dancing is still muted and the band’s front is nonplussed.
Wanda doesn’t have to look very hard to find the people who killed her son, her sister, and her brother-in-law. (Exemplifying that person whose grief has turned brackish and unpalatable, Wanda is largely dismissive of Ida’s parents. Her mother was a gifted craftswoman, able to make stained glass to put in an old cowshed, but Wanda wryly notes that it takes a certain kind of fool to put stained glass above cowpies.) She looks for Szymon Skiba (Jerzy Trela), an old man who hid the family until they weren’t hidden anymore, but finds that Szymon is in the hospital with something that looks terminal. His son, Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), is defensive and as emotional as anyone in the film gets. It’s clear he’s hiding something—and even more abundantly clear that he is terrified that Wanda will bring the law against him to repossess the family farm the Skibas have been quietly squatting on—but it takes a private conference between himself and Anna to find the truth. From what looks like a mile away, we see three people enter the forest. Feliks leads. Anna follows. Wanda shuffles behind, and so Anna is forced to bounce back and forth between Feliks and Anna, the link between the two. Feliks digs. A skull appears. He sits in the grave, murmuring the truth. He killed them, not Szymon. Ida was a baby girl with pale skin; the boy was, in his words, “dark and circumcised,” and could never have passed for Christian under the Nazi watch. Ida was given to the convent, and now she has returned to the place where she was taken from her family. After that massively wide establishing shot, the movie returns to close-ups. What Feliks dug up for them is returned to the earth in a Jewish cemetery, the soil coming up and moving mostly through hands. Pawlikowski does in those two scenes what almost never happens in films about the Holocaust: he finds a way to express the numinous horror of the genocide and its aftermath alike. The grave seems to swallow Feliks when he confesses, and in that image we can visualize fissures and earthquakes, rocks screaming out the truth that people cannot find it in themselves to address.