Few nations have a more tragic 20th Century history than does Poland. Invaded and split in half by both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939, then the remainder seized by Germany two years later (which triggered WW II), and finally a repressive Communist regime until 1989. Poland once had 3,500,000 Jews, most poor, but some had become middle and even upper class. The Nazis, aided by Poland's own endemic anti-Semitism, murdered a stunning 97% of Poland's Jews. It was no accident that most of the major death camps, such as Auschwitz, Belzec, and Treblinka were established in Poland. Less than 120,000 Jews survived to the liberation in 1945, most of whom had fled to Russia. But Polish anti-Semitism was so ingrained that even after the Nazis were gone, there was a pogrom in 1946 in Kielce, a small village that resulted in at least 37 Jews killed. Consequently the great majority of the few surviving Polish Jews fled to the West or to Israel. But of those that remained, a substantial number joined the Polish Communist Party because of their socialist ideals. They were prominent in the party until the 1960's when many were purged in concert with similar purges in Soviet Russia. Even as late as 1968, the Polish government fostered an anti-Zionist (read anti-Semitic) program that drove nearly all of the remaining Jews out of the country. So the history of the Jews in Poland is very sad, and as more than one historian has said, "All of Poland is a Jewish graveyard".
Rarely, a Jewish baby or young child was rescued or given by its parents to an orphanage with the child raised as a Catholic. In many cases the parents and other relatives were killed before the war's end, and in some cases the children were never told of their heritage. In a few cases the Church would not release the child to relatives. Yet most of these children survived when otherwise they would have been murdered by the Nazis.
Pawel Pawlikowski is an accomplished Polish director whose best known film (in America) is My Summer of Love (2004), but his The Woman in the Fifth (2011) has also screened here. Pawlikowski's latest film, Ida, is no less than a masterpiece. It is set in Poland, in the 1960's, when the country was firmly in the suffocating grip of the communist party. Poland was poor and had only begun to recover from the devastation of the war. The film opens with Anna, a young novice with her traditional wimple and habit, painting a sculpture of Jesus. Three other novices help her carry it out through the snow to the center of a courtyard and place it on a pedestal. Then we follow the novices as they go about their daily convent life. The convent scenes seem both modern and medieval, the medieval accentuated by their spartan interiors. The scenes of the nuns and novices eating in silence, with only the clinking of their spoons in their soup bowls, speaks volumes about their outwardly austere life. Anna, who came to the convent from an orphanage, has an aunt, Wanda, who has never responded to any of Anna's letters. Anna is about to take her vows but the mother superior tells her that it would be best to visit her aunt before totally committing herself to life as a nun. Anna travels to Wanda's apartment and is stunned to hear that she, Anna, is in fact a Jew. Wanda tells Anna the story and soon the two take a road trip to the rural village where Anna's parents may have been killed. All of this in only the first half hour of the film.
Pawlikowski has chosen to shoot in black and white, which emphasizes the poverty of Polish life, the gloom of winter, and the frozen countryside. It gives a timeless character to the story, and adds greatly to its power. Nearly every frame is beautiful and you imagine you are watching a 50 year old film. Some of the images look straight out of Bergman, such as a long shot of the farmer, Anna, and Wanda walking across a large field into the woods. The acting is absolutely outstanding, with a noted Polish actress playing Wanda, but Anna is played by someone who has never acted professionally. This reinforces the opposites of the two characters: Wanda, world wisely, cynical, and hard drinking, and Anna, fresh, devoted to God, and inexperienced in most things. The film has no music soundtrack. The only music heard is that being played or heard in the background. Simply put, Ida is a masterpiece. Its quiet power and haunting images are unforgettable. This is one of the best films that I have seen this year and it will likely be the Polish nomination for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. See this on the big screen! Playing time: 80 minutes. Just opened at the Clay (SF), the Rafael, and the Albany Twin. Ciao, Ian
Photos: Courtesy of "Ida" website