The film which has wowed audiences worldwide and garnered international critical acclaim, including an impressive number of awards and nominations (even for the Oscars), has provoked furious discussion in Poland, earning such labels as anti-Polish and anti-Semitic. What is it about Ida that made this movie such a contested issue in Poland?
Ida was controversial even before its glorious march to worldwide fame started. Along the way, the film has collected some 70 international awards, and this streak may come to a triumphant end on 22nd February, the night of the Oscar gala in Los Angeles, where Ida is nominated as the best foreign language film and for best cinematography.
Ida wins the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film!
Wherever Paweł Pawlikowski's film was screened, it garnered almost unanimous applause, with critics appreciating its perfect artistic form, sophisticated use of black-and-white photography, and references to film history, with the names of Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman quoted most often. ‘Masterpiece’ would be among the milder compliments to be found in the reviews (the list of reproaches would start with ‘too perfect’). It has been also a big commercial success, grossing $4 million in the US alone (as of mid-January). But nothing like this in Poland… Why is Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida not so successful here in its homeland?
Ida tells the story of a girl raised in a convent after WW2. Encouraged by her abbess, the girl (who is soon to become a nun) travels to her aunt Wanda, who happens to be her only living relative. Wanda is a magistrate and a one-time Stalinist prosecutor (which means she was arresting people, often innocent, who opposed the Communist regime). It is from Wanda that Ida learns that she is Jewish, and that their whole family was killed in the Holocaust. The film’s plot, mimicking a typical road movie, will take the two women into the heart of the provincial Communist Poland of the 60’s, and to the former house of Ida’s parents, which, however, has changed owners in the meantime.
What is it about this simple story that made it so controversial in Poland?
The film’s plot raised many concerns, especially on the part of the critics associated with the left side of the political spectrum (and the website Krytyka Polityczna), but also researchers centred around the Polish Holocaust Research Centre. Some of them saw in Ida a whole catalogue of anti-Semitic clichés, most importantly that of Judeo-communism (pol. żydokomuna), a popular belief in Poland that Jews were largely responsible for establishing the Communist government and were particularly active in the security sector. Others suggested that Ida is an attempt at ‘Christianizing’ the Holocaust.
Some of the critics even went on to say that Ida "nullifies" the great effort of Polish historians in showing Polish co-responsibility for the Holocaust. This scientific effort has been indeed substantial, especially compared to other Post-communist countries of the region. At least since 2000 and the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbours, the results of this research were part of big public debates on Polish complicity in the Holocaust. This was also the case with this author’s subsequent publications, like Fear or Golden Harvest (the latter dealing with the subject which is also present in Ida, namely that of Polish neighbours taking over Jewish property after the war). Gross’s conclusions were taken further by the books of Polish researchers of the Holocaust, like Barbara Engelking, Jan Grabowski or Dariusz Libionka from the Polish Holocaust Research Centre. One of the most recent books published by the centre, Klucze i kasa (Keys and Cash, 2014) may be seen as a continuation of J.T. Gross's Golden Harvest, a multi-faceted study of the ways in which Poles became owners of Jewish property… A theme which also made it into new Polish cinema, most importantly with the acclaimed Pokłosie (Aftermath, 2013), and which features strongly in Ida.
So in what way does Ida go against this current in Holocaust research? Does it, as some say, transmit anti-Semitic stereotypes?
The leftist critics of the film suggested that the film revives a dangerous and widely popular myth in Poland, that is to say the stereotype of Żydokomuna, or Judeo-communism. This belief, which can be seen as an evolution or variant of Judeo-bolshevism theory, links the Jews and their engagement in Communism (actually, even before the war), and particularly the establishing of the Communist regime in Poland. This controversial opinion suggests that the Polish Jews were 'over-represented' in the Communist security departments and responsible for brutal repressions and terror in Poland's People Republic after WW2, especially against the soldiers of the Home Army (who opposed the Communist state in Poland even long into the 50’s). The proponents of this phantasm of żydokomuna also believe that the ruthless behaviour of some Communists of Jewish descent was embedded in their Anti-Polish resentment and their Holocaust trauma, and resulted in their seeking vengeance on the Poles for their pre-war anti-Semitism and wartime attitude towards the Jews.
One of the heaviest charges waged against Ida centres around the character of Wanda. Her figure is loosely based on the real person Helena Wolińska, a Stalinist prosecutor, and a key figure in the Communist arrests and executions of many Polish anti-Nazi resistance fighters of the Polish Secret State (the most famous of them being General August Emil Fieldorf, a legendary commander of the Polish Home Army). Wolińska, who was fired from her job in 1956 during Polish October (which ended the Stalinist period in Poland), left the country in 1968, following the anti-Semitic campaign waged by the Communists, and eventually settled in Oxford. Paweł Pawlikowski (who moved to England in 1971) met Wolińska around that time and was fascinated with her person (interestingly, at that time he didn’t know about her infamous past). Wolińska died in 2008 and Pawlikowski, who at first wanted to make a documentary about her, made her into the model for Wanda.
Indeed, the film does suggest that Wanda’s role as a Communist prosecutor, arresting and framing Polish resistance fighters, was rooted in the deep resentment and trauma caused by the loss of her son and family, killed by Polish peasants.
One of the critics, Agnieszka Graff, pointed out that in the film Wanda is not a Stalinist prosecutor because she represents certain ‘ideological choices’ or raisons, but rather because her family was murdered by Poles. Thus, Wanda’s activity as prosecutor is then simply an act of revenge on Poles. This logic has been criticized and seen as historical oversimplification, whereas in fact the reasons for Jewish engagement in Communism were much more complex, and the film definitely lacks acknowledgement of that, at least so the critics say.
Moreover, Wanda is shown as a morally repugnant character who drinks heavily, is sexually promiscuous, and ruthless in her attitude to others – a blatant contrast to the pure-hearted, innocent Ida. It will come as no surprise then that the other real-life model for Wanda was Julia Brystygier, a particularly ruthless Communist security officer, also of Jewish origin.
Balancing of Guilt, False Symmetry
According to one of the critics, Anna Zawadzka, the figure of Wanda also allows for a peculiar balancing of guilt. As she writes on her blog, Polish guilt (for having murdered a family of Jews) is balanced by the Jewish guilt (=the Stalinist prosecutor’s office, and in fact – why not? – the whole Stalinist period, as she says). – OK, there was anti-Semitism, but there was also ‘żydokomuna’. And the truth lies somewhere in between, Zawadzka ironically concludes.
This establishes a false symmetry which, according to Piotr Forecki, enabled the director to speak openly about Polish crimes on Jews and which can be seen as a price Pawlikowski paid to satisfy the Polish audience.
For Agnieszka Graff, the film doesn’t explain anything and passes no judgement. Instead, it makes everything aesthetic and reduces it to a private matter. According to Graff, Ida takes the post-Holocaust trauma and Stalinism not as its subject matter, but only uses it as a pretext and background.
Pawlikowski reacted by saying that it was not his intention to make a film about something.
– I didn’t want to make a film “about” something, about Polish-Jewish relations. I was interested rather in the problems of seeking one’s identity, questions regarding the nature of faith – he said in an interview.
This, however, was also subjected to criticism. Graff thought the director tried to ‘Christianize’ the Holocaust.
– Pawlikowski distances himself from politics but his film about a Jewish nun follows a formula which we have known for many decades: in Catholic Poland one can talk safely (and make movies) about the Jews, provided that they become Catholics, or at least, that they are saved by Catholics. Ida meets these requirements with flying colours. Once again, instead of talking about the Holocaust, we are talking about Redemption.
This is an allusion to the film's ending and the identity choices made by its protagonists. Perhaps the best conclusion of the whole matter came from Tadeusz Sobolewski, the revered veteran film critic who took the side of the director in the debate, said that Pawlikowski may not be taking part in the game of the Holocaust, but, willing or not, he does participate in it.
Ida was the first film that Pawlikowski, who left Poland in 1971 and had been living and working in France and England, made in Poland. In an interview with Sobolewski, Pawlikowski stated:
– I never wanted for Ida to be perceived as a film about the Holocaust. For me, it was more of a love-letter to Poland, a certain mentality, the music of it – says the director.
Well, in that case it just may be that this letter might have been misaddressed in the first place. Especially since his film was also criticized from a different side.
While leftist critics saw “an entire catalogue of the most vulgar anti-Semitic tropes” in Ida, some right-wing publicists described the film as ‘anti-Polish’. For them, the film shows Poles as anti-Semites complicit in the Holocaust. They suggested that Ida is also exceptional in that it might be the first Polish film to talk of the Holocaust (and its aftermath) in total detachment from the role of German occupiers – the real perpetrators of the Shoah. (In fact, there’s no mention of the German occupation in the film at all).
This critique increased after Ida was nominated for the Oscars, which meant that the film received even more publicity. In January, the members of the Reduta Dobrego Imienia (Polish Anti-Defamation League) authored a petition to the Polish Film Institute (which helped to finance the film) in which they expressed concerns about the potentially negative influence the film could have on foreign audiences which, self-evidently, often lack in-depth knowledge of Polish wartime history and Polish-Jewish relations. They wrote that upon seeing the film non-Polish viewers might leave theatres deeply convinced that it was the Poles who murdered European Jews and misappropriated their property. The petition was signed by over 45 thousand people.
The authors of the petition also demanded that the film shown before foreign audiences be appended with an introduction that would include such information as: (1) Between 1939-1945 Poland was under German occupation. (2) During this time the occupiers pursued a policy of exterminating Jews. (3) Helping Jews was punished with death to the whole family. (4) This led to the deaths of many thousands of Poles who helped the Jews. (5) The authorities of the Polish Underground State punished those who persecuted Jews with death. The proposed note should end with a sentence stating that (6) the Yad Vashem Institute has awarded the most Righteous among the Nations in the world to Poles.
According to the authors of the petition, this should provide the context and fill historical gaps ensuring that the film and the nature of the German occupation of Poland is understood correctly abroad. Naturally, this has been dismissed by the director of the Polish Film Institute, Agnieszka Odorowicz. 'The film is about something else completely and it won't include anything that wasn't authored by the director,' said Odorowicz.
– Not every film must be a history book. Cinema is more about the protagonist, psychology, and the human dimension of history. The arguments in the petition miss the point completely, they are also stupidly nationalist. Ida doesn't offend anyone. It contains no accusatory arguments, like: 'It is Poles who are responsible for the Holocaust'. This is a film about memory, spiritual searching, and finding one's identity. A wise and important film – said Marcin Zaremba, a historian and an expert on Polish history during WW2.
It seems that the best way out of this conundrum is simply to watch Ida for yourself (or watch it again for those who already have), and make up your own mind.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 28 January 2014