IDA, from acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) tells the story of a young novitiate, Anna, who on the verge of taking her vows, discovers the secret of her Jewish identity.  When her Mother Superior insists that Anna visit her sole surviving relative, her aunt Wanda, a Communist party insider and secular Jew, Anna learns that her birth name was Ida Liebenstein, and journeys with Wanda to uncover dark truths of her family history.  Set in Poland in1962, the film is an examination of faith and identity in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  Additionally, it is Pawlikowski’s evocative tribute to the homeland of his remembered youth.  The following is an edited conversation that I had by phone with director Pawlikowski, shortly after his film screened at Sundance Film Festival 2014.

Sophia Stein:  You have commented:  “I come from a family full of mysteries and contradictions and have lived in one sort of exile or another for most of my life.”  How so?

Director Pawel Pawlikowski. Photo courtesy of Sylwester Kazmierczak and Sundance Film Festival 2014.

Pavel Pawlikowski: In 1971, when I was around 13 years old, my [divorced] mother married an English guy.  I came to England, but I didn’t treat England as my home.  As far as I was concerned, I was on holiday.  I lived in Germany, England, Italy, Paris, but I never returned [to Poland] until just last year.  So I made a bit of a profession of exile.  A couple of years ago, I settled into the flat right next door to where I had lived in Warsaw before I’d left.

Both my parents were secular Poles.  My mother’s family, with whom I spent all my holidays and Christmases, was a traditional Polish-Catholic family.  On my father’s side, his mother was Jewish. So I was a quarter Jewish, but I didn’t know that for a while.

Sophia:  How did you first learn that you were Jewish?

Pawel:  I am not Jewish.  My grandmother was Jewish.  It wasn’t a big drama.  I just I looked through the papers once, and there it said she died in Auschwitz.

Sophia:  You set out to make a film about faith --

Pawel:  About faith, about memory.  The whole film is an effort to bring back to life something that is lost [to me].  Poland of that time.  It was an idyllic youth that I had.  Though it might look grim and bleak to those who grew up in the west, actually I find it was a very glamorous world that the film portrays.  The characters are tested by history.  The moral choices were not just choices because you are a liberal and you read stuff in the newspaper and you agree.  History forces people to do stuff.  You see sometimes huge contradictions within a character.

Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Sophia:  You have observed that the Poland of 1962 was so much “cooler and more original than the Poland of today.”

Pawel:  Poland, like most of the Western world to which we all belong, has become globalized, overrun by corporate interests and consumerism, with these virtual fantasies of ourselves and of our politics.  We have lost a sense of what is at stake, of the danger of life. 

This country that was traumatized by the war and by Stalinism, suddenly emerges from all that in the 1960’s.  There are stirrings of joie de vivre, of music, of hip attitudes, of youthful optimism.  One of the reasons that I made this film was because I wanted to bring to life that Poland … which is possibly half-imagined, but this is how I remember it.  Suddenly, in the early ‘60’s, there was a tiny margin of freedom.  There was still a communist dictatorship, but it was no longer this state of terror.  Young people grabbed with both hands and started to invent themselves.  The theatre, the cinema, modern classical music, and jazz with all the anarchic potential that Poland possessed, was a huge cultural influence on the world for a while.  My film pays a bit of an homage to that sense of confidence that Poland once had in its culture.

Wanda (Agata Kulesza) shares family photos with Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), revealing a personal history of which she had no prior knowledge. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Sophia:  The character of Ida in your film faces a choice between taking her vows as a Catholic nun or leaving behind the nunnery and embracing a secular life and her Jewish ancestry.  Ida must chose between the religion that saved her from the massacres of the Nazi occupation in Poland or the religious identity of her birth and her ancestors.  The film seems to suggest that the only way for a Jew to have survived the Holocaust in Poland was to have become a holy Saint.

Pawel:  The real choice for me with Ida, is not whether she chooses to rejoin her Jewish ancestors, but whether she rejoins the world.  Whether she wants to engage in life or not.  Because she is a genuine believer, this journey actually reinforces her faith.  In the end, Ida opts out of life.  Every film is a kind of crooked mirror, so whoever looks at it can take away different things.  I made this film open to all sorts of interpretations. 

Sophia:  Some of the feelings that your film stirred up in me as a Jewish spectator, was the kind of guilt that I felt as a young person for examining the notion that given the hardships of anti-Semitism, why stay Jewish, why not convert?  I felt that was an active tension in the film.  Is this young woman either going to embrace this historical identity, or is she going to stay with what she has been indoctrinated to believe and practice throughout her entire life.  So it did make me curious about your perspective, as the storyteller.

Pawel:  Ida doesn’t feel hatred for the murderer of her family.  So it doesn't give her a kind of energy to jump anywhere.

Sophia:  A principle Christian tenet is forgiveness?

Pawel:  Not Christianity as understood by the Polish church – which is very exclusive and tribal and sometimes lacks spirituality.  Catholic and Polish seem to be synonymous to the point where the spiritual dimension often gets lost.  IDA is trying to counteract that.

I had an experience in New York at this recent screening at the Jewish Film Festival, where IDA was the closing night film.  Some older gentleman asked me:  “Why doesn’t Ida chose the right path?  You have a choice and you made her chose the wrong path.”  Another lady who was Jewish answered on my behalf, “Now what would happen if a family of Sephardic Jews would discover that actually they have Catholic blood flowing through their veins?  Would they abandon their faith?”

Ida opens at the Clay Theater in San Francisco and around the Bay Area this weekend. View the official trailer, below.