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The Schmooze

‘Ida’: Conversation with Director Pawel Pawlikowski

“Ida,” a fascinating and disquieting Polish language film written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is a post-Soviet Polish rumination, a mystery with religious and political overtones. Pronounced as “Eeda,” Pawlikowski told me during our chat: “I needed a good name and remembered the Jewish Polish actress Ida Kaminska. It was a name I liked, but just a name.”

Pawlikowski — a charming, handsome man — and I met at Serafina’s outdoor café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. With ambulance sirens and pedestrian chatter as a dissonant soundtrack, I complimented Pawlikowski — who I assumed had deep roots in Poland — about his on-key replication of post-Soviet Poland’s bleakness, cultural and political detritus. His surprise revelation: “I left Poland when I was 13!… This is my first Polish language film.” A propos the film’s narrative, he said he was aware of the late-in-life confessions — usually a dying grandmother — who tells her Polish Catholic family that she was Jewish.

“Like all fiction, it comes from fragments of hearsay, “ said Pawlikowski, who admitted he was familiar with Father Wechsler “who discovered his Jewish roots and took interest in his other identity. But it is not my character [Ida]. It was just an idea that floated somewhere.”

Pawel Pawlikowski Image by Karen Leon

“Ida” follows young beautiful novice Anna (“Agata Tzebuchowska”) about to take her vows on a journey of historic self-discovery. Because “blood relatives must be met before vows are taken,” she is sent from the convent — where she has lived since infancy — and ordered to meet her until then unknown aunt Wanda who bluntly informs her that she is a “zydowka” (a Jewess)! and that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Holocaust victim Wanda brings Ida (the Catholic novice) to what had been their parents’ rural home and in a bitter recitative exhumes the family’s dark fate to which Ida remains a dispassionate tourist.

What about the character Wanda, I asked Pawlikowski — a tough doctrinaire surrogate judge in post-war Poland who spends her life picking up men, and compares herself to a slut, to Mary Magdalene?” Pawlikowski was adamant: “Wanda, is a composite…. but there was a real person who worked for the State Security high –up. “ “So why show Wanda as a nasty Stalinist?” Pawlikowski shrugged: “It’s a Polish cliché about Jews having brought Communism to Poland.”

What was the reaction to the film? Pawlikowski informed, “In Poland audiences liked it…. We took it to the countryside, to villages. Polish nationalists on the Internet say this is a very anti-Polish film [but] Jewish people wonder if she will go back to her roots.”

“So how do you explain the residual anti-Semitism in Poland?” He shrugged: “I have no track with anti-Semites. I do not know who they are…When I am in Poland and hear something anti-Semitic, I get very upset and talk about it. And, when I am in the West and hear Poland being reduced to just a bunch of anti-Semites, that pisses me off too!” And then he was off to catch a plane.

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