01 June 2014


I think it was a very quiet film but for an unsettling one. The highest decibel level seemed to come from the alto saxophone in the jazz band playing Coltrane at the Polish town’s 500th anniversary. The band was comprised, of course, of Polish musicians, probably all in their twenties. They had not experienced the war but they had lived through the Communist regimes of the fifties and early sixties. The band gave no evidence of any awareness of the town’s most recent history. Their jazz suggested a move into a modernity that I believe the film’s story denied.
            I am speaking of Ida, the Polish film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Anna is a young novice prepared to take her final vows, but as she does so, she is called into the Mother Superior’s office and told that she has a single relative whom she must visit before she assumes her final position in the convent. The Mother Superior insists that Anna make the journey, and so she packs her simple suitcase (what does a young novice put in a suitcase?) and travels to this unknown aunt’s apartment. And the first thing Anna learns when she arrives is that she is Jewish, that her real name is Ida, and that she was given to the convent when she was an infant and her family was threatened by the anti-Semitic environment prevalent in the town and made virulent by the actions of the Germans. Her aunt tells Anna/Ida that in all probability her entire family was murdered during the war. Ida sets out on a road trip with her aunt, Wanda, who had once served as a powerful prosecutor for the Communist regime but who seems now to be a low level and unhappy judge, (who had, she informs Ida, sent a few people to their deaths). The two women seek to find out exactly what had happened to her family and where they have been buried. During the journey they discover that Ida’s family was first protected in the woods by a neighbor and soon murdered by the neighbor’s son who then appropriated the Lebenstein’s house and land. One of the victims of the massacre was the aunt’s young son. The Pole offers to show them where he buried the family if they will give up all rights to the house and land of which he has assumed ownership.  When Ida asks why she, too, wasn’t in the grave, the son says she was tiny but that the boy was dark skinned and circumcised. Ida was left with a priest.
            Ida and her aunt recover some of the bones of the family and re-inter them in the Jewish cemetery; it is overrun with weeds, vegetation and decay. The two dig a shallow grave at the family plot and deposit the remains of their family that had been murdered not by Nazis but by their Polish neighbors.
            I think that in its outline the film tells a very familiar story, but I think that what the film means to document is not the usual narrative concerning the Holocaust but Ida’s growing awareness of the world’s evil from which her life in the convent has protected her. Returning to the convent after her experiences with her aunt, Ida admits to herself that she is not yet ready to take her final vows. While the other novices become initiated into the convent as nuns, Ida watches and weeps: but I am not clear if the tears are for her disappointment or for her awareness of the life that has been lost to her.
Her aunt’s experience in the war and in the government has left her disillusioned and dissolute. Finally, no longer able to tolerate either herself or the world, she commits suicide by throwing herself out of her window, and Ida once again returns to the world outside the convent, this time to bury her aunt. After the funeral, Ida returns to her aunt’s apartment, puts on her aunt’s clothes and high heels shoes, and heads out to the club where the jazz band continues to play. After hours she dances awkwardly with the saxophone player with whom she then spends the evening, but in the morning she awakens, and quietly leaving the bed and the young man, dons again her novitiate habit and returns to the convent where it is clear she will take her vows and spend the rest of her life. In bed, the saxophone player (he has remained nameless!) had invited her to join with him and the band as they travel: they have a scheduled gig in Gdansk. he had offered her marriage, children, a home . . . and when she says what else, he responds “Life.” But I think that Ida has come to know that this is neither a world made for Jews; nor for people, like her mother, sensitive and soft; this is not a world where justice and right will triumph. This world is not where she would find any Life in which she would participate, and so Ida chooses the convent. And perhaps it is not God she seeks there but a peaceful sanctuary from the world.
            I departed the theater very sad.


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