In the spring of 2002, my wife spent the semester teaching law at a university in Lublin, Poland. I went over with her, then returned near the end to help her pack to come home. During our time together, we learned a lot about Polish life, both present and past. What we learned helped me put the movie “Ida” — which is playing at the Magic Lantern — in perspective. And I used the perspective in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, a transcription of which follows:
When the late-spring sun warms the streets of Lublin, life in the southeastern Polish city begins to resemble what we Americans think of as normal European life. As the outdoor cafes gradually open, you can even find a decent cup of coffee – the perfect antidote to a night of drinking some of the best beer made outside of Germany and the Czech Republic.
Sitting there, caught up in the glow of Lublin’s charm, you would hardly suspect that, just outside the city’s center sits what’s left of one of World War II’s most horrific legacies: the Majdanek death camp. During its years of operation between 1941 and ’44, tens of thousands of Jews, non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and various other groups were murdered in and around Majdanek, either worked to death, starved, shot or gassed in one of the camp’s three killing chambers.
If the 20th-century taught us anything, it’s that we all too easily forget – or, for that matter, ignore – the horrors of war, especially when the sun is shining and a cappuccino sits steaming before us. And that is one reason why it’s important to pay tribute to films such as “Ida,” Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s study of a young woman on the verge of taking her final vows as a nun.
The other main reason, of course, is because Pawlikowski’s filmmaking skills make him as much of an artist as a storyteller. The story he chooses to tell is set in 1962 and begins in the convent where our devout young protagonist is directed, prior to donning her nun’s habit, to connect with her only living relative. That relative is the very aunt who had refused to answer, over the years, the convent’s repeated messages on behalf of the girl.
Gradually, we discover why the aunt, a 40-something judge and former prosecutor, has refused any contact with Ida AND why she has allowed her life to become a tedious string of judicial proceedings, bouts of heavy drinking and one-night stands. The answers involve deep, dark family secrets that come to light when aunt and niece embark on a road trip to discover the grave sites of Ida’s parents – secrets that exemplify the countless examples of inhumane actions that are all too common during war.
Pawlikowski underscores the tragic sense of his screenplay by choosing to shoot in black and white. And what in other circumstances might seem like a preciously artistic choice serves a clear function here: The Poland of “Ida” seems every bit the gloomy underworld it must have been during those harsh decades under communism. This atmosphere contrasts well with the film’s calm pacing and perfectly framed shots that, taken individually, might qualify for inclusion in a MOMA photo exhibit.
The end result is a film that stands both as a work of art and a tribute to those lost souls buried in woods far darker than the late-spring sun could ever penetrate.