Questioning Identity

Ida is a stark portrayal of post-war Poland, which challenges notions of loyalty, religion and family bonds through a road trip, as undertaken by a Jewish nun and her Communist aunt.

It is 1962, but looking out across a vast expanse of bleak, snow-covered Polish countryside it could be a century earlier. Eighteen-year-old orphan, Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), is about to take her final vows in the convent that she has grown up in since she was left on the doorstep as a baby in 1945. Before making this final step towards becoming a Sister of the convent, her Mother Superior insists she seek out her sole living relative – an aunt who, despite numerous letters, has never come to collect Anna.

Anna, sheltered and naïve, soon finds herself in the commanding presence of Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her middle-aged aunt and a former hard-line Communist state prosecutor notorious for sentencing priests and others to death. Wanda, a dark, once beautiful and cynical woman, tells Anna – halfway through a long draw on her cigarette – that her real name is, in fact, Ida, and that she is “a Jewish nun” as her parents, Haim and Róża Lebenstein, were murdered after the Nazi and Soviet occupations in 1939. This life-changing revelation takes the two women on a journey together, deep into rural Poland and their own repressed pasts to find the graves of Ida’s parents.

The result is a story that evokes the haunting legacy of World War II, a time during which ethnic Poles and Polish Jews were subject to both Nazi and Soviet persecution – resulting in the deaths of a fifth of the Polish population, or six million Polish citizens, with around three million of these having been Polish Jews. Following this cataclysm, the Communist Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, took over the Polish government and, as Wanda vouches, had the independent-minded shot or hanged.

None of this is stated in Ida, but all of it is built into the heavy and unwelcoming atmosphere encountered by the characters, whereby the conversations of strangers are disturbed by distrust and fear. These people are survivors, and there is a palpable awareness that some of them are only alive through having committed acts of betrayal or indulged wilful ignorance.

From acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love), Ida is simultaneously an uncovering of the atrocities of war; a personal insight into the director’s childhood memories of Poland; and an examination of two wildly different women whose temperaments are a product of their life experiences (or in Ida’s case, lack of). Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are brilliantly cast as the oddest of couples: Trzebuchowska is a new (and reluctant) actor whose broad Slavic face the director describes as that “of an earnest child”; meanwhile, Kulesza has been acting for 20 years, and is described by Pawlikowski as “nutty, dogmatic and extrovert.”

Kulesza was cast through traditional auditions; however, Trzebuchowska was discovered by a friend of Pawlikowski’s, who sent him an iPhone image of the young girl after noticing her in a Warsaw café. Beforehand, Pawlikowski says that he “had been looking for an actress for months and it was difficult to find a timelessness calm and groundedness for the main protagomist.” The image of Trzebuchowska was interesting enough for him to pursue, despite her being “a striking hipster with a baroque hairdo, vintage clothes and ultra-cool demeanour, which was hardly material for a nun.” In addition to this, it turned out that she was “a militant feminist, who wasn’t sure about the existence of God and definitely had no time for the Church in Poland.” However, the director realised he had found his unlikely lead in the audition, where Pawlikowski explains: “I took away the make-up, the hair, the hipster accoutrements and had a closer look: she was spot on. There was something timeless about her and touchingly authentic, as if untouched by the media and general narcissism of today.”

In Trzebuchowska, the director had not only found a striking face but also the correct rhythm, strong principles and, according to Pawlikowski, a woman who tends to always think things through before speaking. He says: “Her opinions are not second hand, but totally authentic.” Although Trzebuchowska was resistant to acting (Pawlikowski suggests that she might prefer to direct), she had seen and liked the director’s previous films and so agreed to make Ida, much to Pawlikowski’s relief, comments: “Without her, I could not have made the film as she is something so rare, sociologically and characteristically. She (Trzebuchowska) is completely exceptional.”

This is not to say that Kulesza is not also exceptional; the actress wholly pulls off playing an utter paradox of a character. Wanda is able to chill the air with just a single word and yet is as likely to be found swigging from her bottle of vodka, face set and silent, as she is to be offering Ida a jam doughnut whilst brushing the sugar from her chin. Together the two women portray how paradoxical human lives can be: the two are connected by blood, history and share an understanding, and yet, by all appearances they could not be more different. Wanda is full of contradictions while Ida is steady in her resolve. Pawlikowski compares the two to a machine: “Wanda is the engine, and Ida starts the engine by turning up on her doorstep.”

The film is essentially set up as a road trip – one which Wanda has been delaying in an attempt to “avoid the shadows from her past for her whole life.” However, this is no conventional narrative based around a fast-moving drive, but more a steady stream of long panoramas and weighted pauses, which Pawlikowski uses to allow the audience to figure out the unfolding story in their own time. The director says that he wanted the film to be “as much a meditation as a story” and that these still moments are able to “tell it without saying things or leading the viewer in a direct way. In one shot, the viewer enters the film and becomes a permanent presence within it.”

Ida is markedly different from the majority of contemporary film, with this static cinematographic style, reminiscent of landscape paintings; also, in its use of sound, with 1960s jazz music juxtaposed with classical pieces – particularly Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the Jupiter; and finally, and most immediately noticeable, the fact that the entire film is in black and white. However, Pawlikowski asserts that the striking visual style of Ida is just one element that contributes to the film’s creation of tension, describing all of its component parts as being “equal legs that hold up the table.”

This table, this tension, is really an omnipresent sense of foreboding. There is a disquiet, which is palpable even in the liveliest of settings; a short yet significant part of the film that is set in a small-town hotel, for example. It’s here that Ida is confronted with her own (and unfortunately her aunt’s) sexuality, as she meets Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young and handsome saxophonist. For a brief moment Lis tempts Ida out of her nun’s habit and into the world of 1960s popular culture, accompanied by a soundtrack of slow pop songs, which are more mournful than romantic when they are placed in the context of the women’s journey. This momentary dance arrives directly from the director’s childhood memories and reminds us that, for Pawlikowski, the film is certainly autobiographical as well as being a work of fiction. The director’s grandmother was Jewish and died in Auschwitz.

Pawlikowski himself will only say of this autobiographical dimension to his film that “Ida has multiple origins, the most interesting ones are probably not quite conscious. Let’s say that I come from a family full of mysteries and contradictions and have lived in one sort of exile or another for most of my life. Questions of identity, family, blood, faith, belonging and history have always been present.”

For the director, this film is “a love letter to my country and to a certain period” – a statement which may seem surprising given its austere appearance. The director acknowledges this by explaining: “My country may have been grey, oppressive and enslaved in the early 1960s, but in some ways it was ‘cooler’ and more original than the Poland of today, and perhaps more universally resonant. Iʼm sure that lots of Poles [may] fail to notice the beauty, the love that went into our film – and will accuse me of damaging Poland’s image, by focusing on the melancholy, the provincial and the grotesque.”

Pawlikowski shows a clear affection for Poland, the home that he left at just 14, having been born in Warsaw to a family of “Polish intelligentsia” and fleeing Poland to live in Germany and Italy, before settling in Britain. He therefore harbours a dual perspective on his home country: understanding Polish culture while also being able to look at it analytically, with the eyes of an outsider. This is also, surprisingly, the director’s first filmic return to Poland.

Although the film is set in the 1960s, and concerned with events that took place 20 years earlier, there is an exploration of the identity of contemporary Poland, in particular, the church and Poland as a Catholic state with the director stating that “they say that you have to be Catholic to be Polish.”

In presenting a Jewish Catholic nun, Pawlikowski challenges the notion that Christianity can be ethnically defined, and asserts the universal, spiritual nature of religion. Arguments concerning religion – and notably the conflict between the ideas of saint versus sinner when considered against the realities of the moral maze of survival in wartime and post-war Poland – become a defining point of contention between Ida and Wanda – beginning when the young nun first decides to set out to find her parents’ grave, and her aunt retorts, “What if you go there and discover there is no God?”

Later on, the harsh yet wise Wanda says to Ida, “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint. This Jesus of yours adored people like me.” The two characters do not bounce off one another as such in their exchanges of dialogue, but rather Wanda delivers a barrage of verbal blows to her stoic niece – who, however, arguably ends their journey in a far better position than her aunt.

With Ida revealed as a Jewish nun, Wanda as a former Stalinist state prosecutor, and the crux of the film revealed as the murder of a Jewish family by a Polish farmer, this story presents a relay of moral questions and also a revelation of what happens when our convictions are tested. Ida’s parents were killed – along with, it transpires, another family member – by a Nazi sympathiser who then occupied their house, and whose family lives there still. The audience are also reminded, from their own historical knowledge and by Wanda’s knowing mutterings that this is not an uncommon story.

Despite their deep familial connection, Wanda and Ida are united on an emotional level only for a moment. Once they agree to make no claim on what was Haim and Róża Lebenstein’s house, its current inhabitant shows them to the family’s shallow grave. Here the women hold one another as the man digs to recover the remains, and show not anger but a sense of release. This is truly a harrowing insight into the events of war, on an incredibly intimate scale – no numbers, no statistics, just two women kneeling in the earth and collecting the bones of their relatives to lay to rest elsewhere.

The director asserts that he will always “rewrite films even whilst filming”; however, he had only one conclusion planned for Ida, which sees the women go their separate ways. Throughout the film Wanda is followed around by Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, a classical piece of such grandness and scale that it seems to uphold her stern prowess. Despite this, as the film comes to its end, this piece becomes the backdrop to a swift and humble exit. Meanwhile, having returned to the snowy streets of Warsaw alone – much to the disappointment of the jazz musician Lis – Ida is left to choose between her birth identity or instead returning to the religion that saved her from the horrors of World War II and to the identity of a Catholic nun.

Ida is a nostalgic and engrossing experience that absolutely draws viewers into the vast, grey wilderness of post-war Poland. Pawlikowski admits that for this exact reason, he had expected the film to be his “biggest commercial disaster”; however, having won 22 awards including Best Film Award at the London Film Festival, and been nominated for a further five, Ida has unexpectedly become his biggest success so far. The director insists that he only makes films according to what is on his mind, and Ida had been in his thoughts in some shape for many years. He says: “I don’t think about the audience. If you make a film with your mind and heart, and with honesty and without compromises, then there is always an audience for that.”

Ida is now showing in cinemas across the UK. For further information on screenings, visit the distributor’s website,

Chloe Hodge