Ida or National Cinema Again?

Why Ida, the greatest success of Polish cinema for years, aroused much controversy in Poland?

Ida, the greatest success of Polish cinema for years, aroused much controversy in Poland, resulting in a discussion which has been going on for over a year. Its tone has not been set by film critics, or at least not by them alone. The dispute has been focused on several major contexts. The first regards the way the film presents the Holocaust and the attitudes of Poles towards Jews during that tragedy. The second context concerns the way of presenting the Stalinist period and the involvement of Polish Jews in this system. Yet another context is the aesthetics of this work—some people argue that its beauty is perhaps too cold, too precise for its subject matter, perhaps anaesthetizing our perception of the historical trauma. Religious context has also been discussed, namely the issue of Ida being steeped in Catholic symbolism and ideology. Also the gender context has to be named: the images of femininity and the history of women’s emancipation in communist Poland, and how they are presented in the film.

Although the divisions have often run along political lines—the right charged the film with alleged blaming the Poles for the Holocaust, and the left with repeating anti-Semitic clichés—the dispute has also produced some surprising coalitions. It was clear from the beginning that the argument was not about the specific film, but about the way in which the Polish and Jewish communities, united by their tragic history, may tell their tangled history to each other. Before I take a look at the crucial points of the debate, I would suggest taking a step back and drawing its context.

Unconscious Golden Harvest

The context is defined mostly by books of two authors: Jan Tomasz Gross and Andrzej Leder. Gross’s Trilogy (Neighbors, Fear and Golden Harvest) introduced the subject of the Polish participation in the Holocaust to the Polish public debate: from murders of the Jews during German occupation to Poles getting rich through seizing former Jewish property. Although specialists had been familiar with all these issues before, it was only Gross’s publications which turned them into a theme of national debate and soul-searching.

And Andrzej Leder argues in his book Unconscious Revolution that bourgeois revolution in Poland was replaced by the German occupation and Stalinism. They destroyed the old social hierarchy centered on the manor. The Nazis murdered the Jewish middle-class of the interwar Poland, making it possible for Polish population to seize its property and take its place, while Stalinism opened the way to education and social advancement for former peasant sons. These two forces proved to be midwives of contemporary Polish middle-class. And it went through this formative revolution unconsciously, passively, and is still unable to come to terms with such an origin. It does not want to and cannot look at its past with pride and say “our roots are there,” “this is what we wanted.”

Ida premiered 13 years after the first Polish edition of Neighbors, after Jedwabne had become the symbol of the Polish wrongs against the Jews. Unconscious Revolution was published a few months later. The debates around the film and the book combine into a discussion of the new Polish middle-class and its real roots.

(A)symmetries of Wrongs

The main focus of the debate was Polish wrongs against the Jews during the Holocaust. The narrative of a peasant family including both heroic and criminal episodes—on the one hand hiding and rescuing the Jews and on the other hand murdering them and seizing their property— raised predictable accusations of “defamation of Poles” and “distorting Polish history.” Especially after Ida was awarded an Oscar, a grassroots campaign of protest, present mostly in social media, was launched. The most important cultural critics of the intellectual right raised their doubts about Pawlikowski’s work. Andrzej Horubała complained in Do Rzeczy: “You leave the theatre and your impressions are suppressed by a nagging thought: this is yet another film presenting the war as a time of a big Jew-hunt by the Poles, this is yet another picture which will lead to false generalizations. Admiration for the film is mixed with rage against the context.”

But a truly massive criticism was heaped on the film by the left-liberal side, saying that instead of struggling with national wrongs and traumas, the film was in various ways trying to pacify the memory of such events as Jedwabne. This charge was formulated most clearly by Elżbieta Janicka: “The film Ida answers the question of what to do when the worst has irreversibly come out. It provides an algorithm for an operation to be performed in order to continue to believe in the same thing in the same way and to preserve the majority-supported, safe, familiar and popular story about the Holocaust, without resorting to denying factual knowledge.” If crimes are on both sides—on the one hand the Holocaust, on the other the Stalinist involvement—it makes no sense to apportion blame today, the whole truth about the trauma of the Holocaust must be pacified in an image of reconciliation, Janicka concludes.

She is echoed in this by Piotr Forecki, accusing the film of building false symmetries between Polish and Jewish “wrongs.” According to Forecki, the figure of Wanda Brus, aunt of the eponymous Ida, a Stalinist prosecutor taking part in the post-war political trials, “is a reproduction and reinforcement of the myth of ‘Commie-Jew’ in its hard-core version.” For we don’t know any motivations pushing Wanda to engage in communism; this communist functionary is at the same time—as interpreted by Forecki—a “fallen woman” (she drinks, she smokes, she is promiscuous) and a disgraceful mother, who abandoned her child. The character of Wanda is interpreted in a similar way by Agnieszka Graff, claiming that the only motive pushing Wanda in the communist embrace is the “desire for revenge on the Poles” for the death of her child.

A Jewish Woman in the Shadow of the Church

This false symmetry between Polish and Jewish wrongs produces—according to Janicka— a too easy comforting of the “Polish self-perception” and “purging Poland of the Jews.” And indeed, Ida could be read as a story of the disappearance of two Jewish women. One of them, Ida, abandoning her Jewishness and moving towards monastic vows in the finale, is symbolically melting in the imagery of the Catholic majority. The second woman abandons the world altogether, jumping out of the window to the sounds of the Jupiter Symphony. Janicka unambiguously interprets such an ending as a kind of moralistic message, a bill of moral economy presented by the film to its characters: “The bad Jew engineers her self-destruction. The good one does a similar thing, remaining a Christian; one dies, the other will die childless.” The ending is read in a similar way by Eliza Szybowicz, who interprets it as waging two battles: an anti- woman one and an anti-communist one. “The return of Ida to the monastery is […] a refusal to live in the degraded communist landscape […]. This cinematic monastery is an ex-territorial, timeless, extra-existential domain. […] Here […] you can look down on the tragic end of the liberated aunt. The perfect feminine negativity cultivated in the monastery […] is supposed to deter from the communist emancipation.” The emancipation of which Wanda is a caricature.

Interestingly, those agreeing with Janicka include Jan Zieliński writing for the Catholic Magazyn Apokaliptyczny Czterdzieści i Cztery. The story of Wanda and Ida is for him an allegory of the alternative between “two ways which can be pursued by both an individual human and by whole nations: the Way of Life (Ida) and the Way of Death (Wanda).” Wanda’s way is the way of the whole Western modernity, of which communism is a product; Ida’s way is the way of the Church. The former ends in crime (abandonment of the child, judicial murders) and suicidal death. Zielinski’s reading differs from Janicka’s interpretation only in the value he awards to the film—the positions they both work on are similar.

The Policy of Beauty or the Polish Film School Revisited

A striking affinity also emerges in the way in which Horubała and Graff conclude their readings of the film. Graff writes: “[Ida] does not tell us anything about Polish-Jewish relations, about the trauma, hatred, identity perceived politically. The film invalidates these questions. Instead of asking them, we are to contemplate in awe a stained glass in a barn window.” Horubała concludes: “But perhaps this is what the message of the film is supposed to consist of? Perhaps we should unnoticeably, gently, on cat’s paws, move from great disputes and remembering tragedies to aesthetic contemplation of beauty.”

They were not the only recipients of the film troubled by the intensity of its beauty. On the other hand, those defending Pawlikowski’s work from all the accusations outlined above often retreated to the fortress of aesthetics, they underlined the artistic merits of the film, its “universal” (in the sense of non-political and non-particular) dimension, while charging the authors of its political interpretations with “lack of sensitivity” or stepping into the role of “Commissars of culture.”

In my own interventions in the dispute I have tried to define it differently than within the opposition—which in my opinion is sterile and long outdated—between “beauty” and “politics” or “aesthetics” and “commitment.” For the social power of Ida is contained also in its beauty. The sophisticated form of the film is not an ornament or an anachronous costume, but an instrument of an archaeologist studying the collective memory through reaching for its material traces as the only things through which we can get to this memory: artefacts from the era, the aesthetics of old photographs and finally the cinema from this period, especially the Polish School.

By reaching for the cinematic forms of the Polish School, Pawilkowski symbolically opens it to the Jewish fate during the Holocaust and the problem of the Polish wrongs. The problem which in the actual works of the Polish School is present only as traces and afterimages (most visibly in Salto by Konwicki), shows that alongside with official censorship perhaps a much deeper censorship was active here.

At the same time, Ida revives the best tradition of the Polish School, such films as Train and Ashes, becoming a cinematic medium through which the community holds a debate about itself. That was not achieved by the three earlier films on a similar subject: Z daleka widok jest piękny by Anka and Wilhelm Sasnals, Sekret by Przemysław Wojcieszek and even Pokłosie by Władysław Pasikowski. The first two films remain too close to the avant-garde cinematic pole to stimulate a wider debate; the third film perhaps lacked a sufficient degree of artistic consecration. Pawlikowski found the golden mean in this respect.

The power and diversity of the dispute over Ida turned the accusations saying that the beauty of this film pacify our social memory into a self-annihilating prophecy. Pawlikowski does not create a moralistic allegory, in which every element (monastery, the Stalinist prosecutor) has one specific meaning and these meanings combine into some moral message. Instead, Ida confronts us with ambiguous characters, rooted in a vortex of Polish-Jewish history. By forcing us to give them a meaning, the film also forces us to take responsibility for our own desires concerning what was, is and should be the community of all nations living in Poland.

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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