On paper, Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida doesn’t exactly have the makings of a global hit, but the Oscar-nominated film has defied expectations since its debut in 2013. The spare, black-and-white drama follows an orphan who’s about to become a nun in 1962 Poland when she learns her parents were Jewish, prompting her to unearth the story behind their deaths. The quiet but resolute Ida (played by first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska) is accompanied by her newly discovered aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking former judge who’s haunted by her part in the country's post-war Stalinist purges. Despite this grim logline, Ida is a remarkably affecting, often funny, and subtly tragic work that succeeds by focusing tightly on its characters as they brush up against their country's dark past.
Ida packs a huge punch in its 82-minute runtime and was greeted with critical acclaim and surprising box office success for a specialty film (more than $10 million). Its impact has grown on Netflix, where the film can be streamed now in preparation for the Academy Awards (it's a frontrunner to win Best Foreign Film and is also nominated for its cinematography). Up until Ida, director Pawlikowski had only made films set in his current home of Britain, including the BAFTA-winning romantic drama My Summer of Love, which marked Emily Blunt's film debut. Ida has generated some controversy within Poland for its supposed lack of patriotism, specifically for featuring a story that touches on some Polish citizens' complicity in the Holocaust without mentioning that many Poles worked to save Jews during the Nazi occupation. The criticism, which stems from the country’s troubled relationship with its relatively recent history, only ramped up once Ida achieved international success. But Ida is above all else a personal tale, not a retelling of history, as Pawlikowski explained in this interview, which has been edited for clarity.
David Sims: How did you initially come up with the premise for Ida? It seems like you've been working on some version of this story for a while.
Pawel Pawlikowski: For a while, as I always do. You sketch something in, then keep writing 'til you hit a wall, then move to a different story, and when you come back, something's shifted. With Ida, it was six years ago, maybe more, that I heard the story of a Polish priest who discovered he was Jewish. And I wrote a version of that story, which didn't have life. It was a bit of an intellectual idea. And then I remembered my encounter with this character Helena (Wolińska-Brus, a Stalinist judge in 1950s Poland who died in exile in the UK in 2008), who became the inspiration for Wanda. That came a couple of years later, and I put the two storylines together. I never know when things will start properly, there's no catalyst.
Sims: It's interesting that you combined those two ideas, since both are about the papering over of history a little bit.
Pawlikowski: They're good existential situations, and they're characters you can relate to a little bit. I identify with both of them, strangely. I connect with all of the characters in my films. That's what makes you want to make a film, that you can enter the mindset, the situation, the conflict, the contradictions. I don't want to make a film that "tackles history," God forbid. It's not about that. We deliberately stayed away from explaining history, which a lot of Polish cinema is bedeviled by. As soon as you start explaining, not only do you have bad dialogue because it's full of exposition, but also it's like a very partial explanation. It's much better to write a book and stick to the research—that's history. In cinema, emotional truth and psychological truth is much more important.
Sims: It's been such a big topic of debate this year, films that are looking at some aspect or angle of history, and then people saying, "You didn't mention this,” or “You got this wrong." And that's been happening with Ida, right?
Pawlikowski: Only recently, when it's become a big thing. When it was just a small arthouse movie, people would just go see it and engage with it on its level. Now it's become a big political thing, because that's what Oscar buzz does to people's brains.
Sims: Do you think it's just a consequence of the publicity?
Pawlikowski: You feel you've been hijacked; it's always an unpleasant feeling. How is this related to what I've just made? It's not a nice feeling, and I also feel a bit embarrassed for my country, which I'm very proud of in most ways. When it happens, and they said Ida is an unpatriotic embarrassment, I think, “My movie's not embarrassing. This is embarrassing.”
Sims: And I feel for that the majority of people discovering this movie, it comes as a surprise. I think it had the help of being on Netflix. That's more the story that's happening here, right? That a black-and-white film set in Poland in the 60s has taken root with people.
Pawlikowski: Yeah, it's great. And some people have described it as a "Holocaust movie," which it isn't. That's not some kind of "genre" I was aspiring to. It has that in the background, and Stalinism in the background, and jazz in the background, and a bit of rock. But it's great when people find the film and take it on its own terms: It's poetic, and kind of funny here and there, and it's tragic. I love films that are many things at the same time while being simple.
Sims: And it's a coming-of-age film.
Pawlikowski: That too, but with a very peculiar character.
Sims: When you were looking for the actress to play Ida, were you looking for some particular quality?
Pawlikowski: I was looking for somebody who was not of today, as if she hadn't watched TV. Because there's lots of osmosis going on, in this virtual media world, with how people behave. It's like, "Did I just see a real person, or was that on a screen?" You want to find someone who you don't think is a copy of something you've seen onscreen lately. I got the feeling [Trzebuchowska] hadn't been watching television in her life, that she'd been in some monastery, even though she's a hip young woman who hangs out in cool cafés in Warsaw, which was where we found her. She's very thoughtful, grounded, keeps the world at a distance a bit—not for any reason, not for religious reasons, that's just her character. She's not in the middle of permanent communication.
Sims: Am I wrong in thinking this was your first narrative film set in Poland? Was there anything in particular that drew you to that?
Pawlikowski: I've reached an age where I'm thinking about the past, more and more. It's the landscape of my childhood, the early 60s. The world was simpler, with fewer things, and this music that feels like a new ferment. And people who are on the one hand shaped by history, rather than virtual reality or lifestyle choices, but historical moments and decisions they had to make. It was really difficult to find extras—it took ages to handpick everyone. Also, it's a kind of love letter to Poland, although it doesn't seem like it. A love letter to a certain point in culture, in the early 60s, a slight kind of creative arrogance, an "I don't care what the world thinks."
Sims: And that's part of the visual approach, that it looks like that era and the films of that era?
Pawlikowski: Yes, although it strangely doesn't, too. But it's the attitude behind it, "Let's not pander to the trends." This is the story, it's complex, the characters are complex. I wanted it to not be a story where the characters are dragged through by hook or by crook, but like a meditation. Now, Polish culture is trying to double-guess, especially cinema—theater is a bit more independent. What will land, how do you make a romantic comedy, or a sociological film like Ken Loach about an issue, or a film about the gay situation—which is very important, but in every country it's been done. Nobody's actually striking into something different, cutting across that and doing their own thing.
Sims: When I think of Polish cinema, I think of Krzysztof Kieślowski (famed director of The Decalog and the Three Colors trilogy).
Pawlikowski: Yeah, and he kind of rode roughshod over expectations.
Sims: Since then, I'll admit, I can't think of many names.
Pawlikowski: There are a couple, but the general attitude is like, "Here are the budgets, how do we get it into festivals with some kind of issue, or how do we make it commercial like an American romantic comedy, but in Polish." Filmmakers are always looking over their shoulders. [I wanted] that attitude of the novels of the late 50s-early 60s, plays, jazz musicians doing their own thing … it's a great period of Polish culture. And setting it in 1962 is a kind of dialogue with these people, but not so much the cinema of the time. Stylistically, Ida's probably closer to the Czech New Wave, Closely Observed Trains or A Report on the Party and the Guests or A Blonde in Love. I wasn't ripping it off, but taking that slightly more wry approach, doing things pictorially without great rhetorical gestures.
Sims: The plot twists or revelations come very quietly, or almost offhandedly.
Pawlikowski: There's a lot of emotionalism in cinema. The emotion is implied already in this situation. You don't have to butter it. I wasn't sure it would affect so many people, I must say. I thought it would be more of a festival movie. But when I watched the premiere of it in Telluride and in Toronto, I could tell there was a real electricity in the room, that people were really affected. But, you never know.
Sims: Do you think 50-plus years later that Poland has become less iconoclastic?
Pawlikowski: The 60s were a great time, a lot of shifting tectonic plates, and it wasn't just Poland. But Poland had a real explosion of great culture, because there had been the war, where people had to hold everything in. Then there was Stalinism, which was strict, bloody censorship. Then from '56, the censorship lessened, but culture was still state-subsidized, and commercial consideration didn't come into it at all. The most interesting stuff happens when an authoritarian government removes itself a little and gives this margin of freedom. And then art is grabbed with both hands. It happened in Iran a little after the Ayatollah [Ruhollah Khomeini led the 1979 Iranian Revolution], where there was a little bit of freedom and that bit of freedom was so beautifully colonized by filmmakers, but without that commercial sense. There's a hunger for truth and for form. For being able to speak freely. There's still quite a bit of censorship in Iran, so you have to talk in metaphors more or less, which is not a bad thing for art.
Pawlikowski: I'll probably have a slightly bigger budget for this kind of stuff. I usually have freedom up to, well, this movie was $1.8 million. So you can cast who you want and rewrite as much as you want, which I did. Not entirely, but quite a bit. Possibly that limit will now widen. But I never had ambitions to make Hollywood films.
Sims: Do you have any concept of what you'll work on next? Will this open any kind of door?
Sims: Do you have anything more you want to make about Britain?
Pawlikowski: Yeah, I've got an idea. Well, I've got three ideas, they're all kind of half-baked, but one is more baked than half. It's a big project, but in a controllable way, not commercial. One idea is in Poland, a very personal story about my parents, and one is about a young Johann Sebastian Bach, a kind of strange road movie about art and landscape and music.
Sims: Bach on the road to Leipzig?
Pawlikowski: Yeah! Bach went on this strange road trip when he was 20, and an angry young man, and he had beaten up somebody and had problems in his church where he was the organist. And he went on foot to this master organist in Luneburg, who was the greatest organist at the time. Not much is known, so that leaves everything to the imagination, but it was 450 kilometers on foot in three weeks, and Bach with his lute.
Sims: It sounds like there's a Pilgrim's Progress element to it, with Bach on the road.
Pawlikowski: Yeah, and Bach was religious, but he couldn't quite marry his faith to his talent, which was prodigious. People who had that sort of talent went to the opera. But that's a tricky one, because it's a period piece. I've written a version of it, but put it aside for the moment. It's funny, I write something, put it aside, maybe shoot something else, and then come back to it and I'm a different person, having made a film. And then there's another layer to it. Things happen in life, and I like what I do, just living and making films in parallel.