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May 24, 2024

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Poland’s First Best Foreign Film Oscar – “Ida”

Exploring “paradoxes of the human soul”
Film alleged to be both anti-Polish or anti-Semitic
Controversy is attracting Polish audiences

WARSAW–Countless Poles stayed up late into the night to watch this year’s Academy Awards on TV, and they weren’t disappointed. As widely expected, Paweł Pawlikowski’s multi-prize-winning Ida became the first Polish-language feature film to capture Hollywood’s highest honors. At the 87th awards gala it received an Oscar for the best foreign film of 2014.

Set in Poland’s drab communist-era early 1960s, it tells the story of Anna, a girl raised in a convent school and soon due take her vows. But on the threshold of becoming a nun she is suddenly confronted with a series of shocking revelations. The novice is visited by Wanda Gruz, an aunt she never knew she had. What’s more – she was a former Jewish Stalinist prosecutor. known as “Bloody Wanda” for sending Poles to their death for the crime of opposing Poland’s Sovietization.

Anna, played by 23-year-old amateur actress Agata Trzebuchowska, first learns from Aunt Wanda that she was a Jewish child named Ida who had been saved from the Holocaust by Polish nuns. Finally, she is confronted with the fact that her parents were killed not by Germans but by Polish peasant Feliks Skiba whom she actually confronts. Troubled by her Stalinist past, now alcoholic Wanda adds to Ida’s traumas by committing suicide.

The plot of this road movie revolves around Ida’s journey with her Aunt Wanda at the wheel of her East German Wartburg sedan across a bleak, wintry, unpopulated Polish landscape. They hope to find the grave of the girl’s parents and uncover the full truth about their tragedy. Pawlikowski’s minimalist approach has created an austere black-and-white movie deliberately shot on antiquated 16 mm film. Ida is definitely closer to the convention of 1960s/70s European art cinema and very far from Hollywood’s dazzling colors, breath-taking camerawork and special effects.

Prior to winning the Oscar, Ida had collected over 80 awards at international film festivals where it was praised as a though-provoking psychological analysis of personal tragedy, the quest for self-identity and coming to terms with individual guilt. In Poland, good box-office results have been assured by the controversy the movie has provoked.

The patriotic right has criticized it as anti-Polish. According to European Parliament Member Janusz Wojciechowski, “this is probably the first film of such stature that includes the holocaust without any Germans.” “The message going out to moviegoers in France and the US is that it was Poles that did the killing,” commented political scientist Michał Szułdrzyński. On the other hand, Jews and leftists have criticized Ida for entrenching anti-Semitic “good nun – bad Jew” stereotypes.

Pawlikowski said he did not want to make a film explaining Polish history but one that “explored paradoxes of the human soul.” Its convoluted plot to some extent the filmmaker’s own confused childhood. Only as an adult did the now 57-year-old filmmaker learn his father was Jewish and had to leave Poland during the communist regime’s 1968 anti-Semitic purge. His mother later moved with 14-year-old Paweł to England. It was at Oxford that he met Stalinist prosecutor Helena Wolińska, whom Poland has been unsuccessfully trying to extradite for years. Wanda Gruz was largely patterned on Wolińska, whereas Ida’s story was inspired by a Polish priest who late in life learned he was Jewish.

Artists of Polish extraction have been honored with over a dozen Oscars over the years but never before in the prestigious best-foreign-film category. They have included composer Leopold Stokowski who received the best music award in 1941 for the animated Disney film Fantasia, as did Bronisław Kaper for his music in the 1953 American musical Lili. Janusz Kamiński received two separate Oscars for his photography of Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

ln 2000, a life achievement Oscar was awarded to Poland’s best-known film director Andrzej Wajda, and two years later Roman Polański was honored for directing The Pianist. Well over two dozen Polish movies have been nominated for Oscars as the year’s best foreign film. Among them have been Polański’s Knife in the Water (1963) and Wajda’s Katyń (2007).

By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent