This is the first in a series of articles about this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Foreign Language Film.
“At some point, you realize that all the disasters are working in your favor,” says Pawel Pawlikowski, enjoying a recent sunny day in Los Angeles, over a year-and-a-half removed from filming “Ida” in the throes of a vicious winter in Poland.
The snow that blanketed the country in the fall of 2012 can be seen in the film’s glorious opening frames, further removing the monastery where its titular character (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her final vows as a nun from the world outside its gates. It’s an extraordinary introduction to Pawlikowski’s fourth narrative feature that makes the thaw the 17-year-old experiences once she leaves the church to investigate a secret from her family’s past all the more palpable. But the 15-below weather also had the benefit of delaying the production long enough for the filmmaker to make sense of what he’d already shot, a break that the filmmaker usually builds into his schedule to allow himself as much discovery during the actual filming as possible but couldn’t afford here. Still, when asked now if he relished the extra time, Pawlikowski can only shake his head.
“Yes, but it was all a struggle from beginning to end,” he says.
In some ways, you can’t imagine “Ida” being made any other way. A finely wrought gem of just 80 minutes shot in stunningly beautiful black-and-white, the film unfurls as Ida’s crisis of faith and identity leads her on the road with her only known relative, a judge (Agata Kulesza) whose notorious tenure as a prosecutor in post-WWII Poland earned her the nickname “Red Wanda.” While it’s uncertain how the two will relate to each other given their completely divergent experiences, they find common ground in the opportunity to escape into the urban wilderness that exists on the side of the highway where bits of imported culture such as jazz and classical music begin to eke their way into the Communist stronghold.
Pawlikowski so distinctly renders the environment and the alternating fear and freedom that it holds that it’s not hard to imagine it came from the writer/director’s own memory of the country before leaving for England in his teens when his parents applied for political asylum. Yet “Ida” is actually a product of the director’s move back to Warsaw after becoming one of cinema’s great global explorers, first working in such places as Bosnia to make documentaries before making his mark as a narrative filmmaker with 2000’s “Last Resort,” in which he delved into the plight of Russian refugees in England. Since then, he’s traveled to the Yorkshire countryside for the tortured romance “My Summer of Love” and to Paris with Ethan Hawke for the 2010 mystery “The Woman in the Fifth,” with each film, he says, a reflection of where he is in life at the time of its making. With “Ida,” he’s returned home as a master of his craft and during a recent stay in Los Angeles, he spoke about how his ideas about filmmaking have changed over the years, the people’s he met who inspired “Ida” and how what he expected to be his biggest failure became his biggest international success.
Yeah, it struck a different chord somehow. Back to Poland to make a film in Polish, everyone thought it was professional suicide, but it’s a film I wanted to make. Paradoxically, it became my most resonant and successful film. I’m enjoying it. I have periods when things went well – every 10 years, more or less – then I spend time living and making other films.
The making of “Ida” coincides with your move back to Warsaw. What inspired you to tell this story?
Many things. There is a kind of nostalgia in there, wanting to make a film about the Poland from my childhood in the early ‘60s, a period which I love and find really interesting, especially given the world culture now. It’s significantly more naïve, more exciting – maybe not, but quieter and less noisy and less vacuous. But I wanted to make a film about identity and what makes us what we are, about faith and what it is to have faith and to be Christian. Is it something within your ethnic origins or social conventions, or is it something transcendental or is it something that has much more to do with your individual soul? I wanted to make a film about how many people we can be in one lifetime, how complicated we are and the paradoxes of humans. We can commit acts of crime and we can still be likable people.
It’s a slight departure from your last two films in that it’s not adapted from a novel, though the books really served as just a starting point, but in revisiting a world you grew up in, do you need to have some kind of firm base to tell a story from?
Yeah, but even when I base something on a novel, I [adapt] it quite radically until it’s something that made sense to me. “Last Resort” wasn’t based on anything either. Often, I just take an element from the novel, then explore it, extrapolate and build and complicate things. It’s not a huge difference [between an adaptation and an original story], to be honest.
Here, I started with three elements to “Ida.” One was just the notion of a nun who discovers she’s Jewish. That was suggested to me a long time ago by the story of a Polish priest who discovered he was Jewish. I played with it for a while. It didn’t go very far, but I knew it was a rich territory, a little bit more intellectual than psychological. Then I put that together with the story of this Communist woman who started out as an idealist, became a Stalinist henchman, her hands soaked in blood, then became disenchanted, [yet she’s] a fun, human and complicated woman throughout. I came across someone like that once and I think there are a lot of people like that who are capable of all sorts of things in one lifetime.
I put these two women together. Suddenly, it became quite an interesting basis for a story, [along with the setting of] Poland of the early ’60s, which I remember as a child and know from books, plays, music, and films. As a young kid, you’re seeing the world for the first time, so it’s a very intense memory, and once I worked and reworked these three elements, suddenly, it took a life of its own. That made it work narratively and find like a visual form for it, to make it be more than just a story, to become like a meditation on bigger things.
You’ve said this was a process of stripping away anything you could as far as storytelling. Is that kind of economy something you develop a taste for over time?
I’ve always had the tendency to strip away. Even in “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love”, I was always trying not to have too many extras or too many props. I always go for a few significant things. Of course, with black-and-white, you strip away color, then the story, you strip away dialogue, which is just information. I’ve always had the tendency to do that, but here, it seemed to work better.
It was a bit freaky at the beginning. We did some tests just to see how it would work, and the first few days were tricky, especially the first day. When I wrote the film, I already was thinking that world felt like it should be black-and-white. A lot of my fantasies about the world came from watching black-and-white, but probably from looking at my family albums, which I travel with everywhere I go. When I change countries, I always have 10 family albums with me. There’s some great photographs in there, [with] accidental framing and strange formats, all black-and-white from that period, so there was no option but to shoot [“Ida”] in black-and-white, in a way.
Two of the most striking elements of the film emerge from working with a first-time actress as the lead and a first-time feature cinematographer. Did you see an opportunity in their relative inexperience?
Both were young and open and brave, and when you know what the film is, all you need is an energy and collaborators who are open-minded with whom you can make the thing grow rather than delegate it to them. I don’t know whether it had an impact on that shape of it, but maybe something I realized was that you have to work with people you like.
There’s often been an airy quality to your films, even when they’re complex dramas. Did having it anchored to a particular historical moment add a weight that you had to consider?
No, but in films [I’ve made] which are set in the present, I’ve always made an abstraction of the present. The girls in “My Summer of Love” are nothing like the real girls of that time. I did some research looking for nonprofessional actors because I wasn’t really interested in the way youth is today at all. I wanted to make it timeless. Everything I do, even in my documentaries, I was only interested in the subjects I make films about and characters and situations insofar as they could be timeless. I look for universal [elements] rather than make something that’s sociological or didactic or explains things. Same with “Ida,” it’s set in a particular time and place, but I’m not trying to explain the Second World War or the Holocaust or Stalinism. I just have these very specific characters that hopefully will be relevant to all ages. That didn’t feel vastly different, but what did was that I stopped trying to imitate reality, to make it feel naturalist in a kind of superficial way.
I stopped using hand-held cameras, for one thing. Even “Last Resort” or “My Summer of Love,” that world doesn’t exist, and it’s a completely fictitious universe. Everyone said “Last Resort” was somehow a documentary about the refugee center, but that place didn’t exist. I thought of it in terms of some kind of futuristic place. It ended up being very real, but it wasn’t a reflection of reality at all. I don’t think certain amounts of stylization kills life. [Instead], it possibly brings more life out, which I didn’t think when I was making [the 1998 documentary short] “Twockers” or “Last Resort.” Then I liked catching the raw moment, however abstract the whole situation was, whereas now, I think photography, framing and acting should be part of the same thing, and I have no time for this kind of make-believe reality that film is a lot of the time.
With “Ida,” it’s the same. What was interesting and important was to bring to life that world which isn’t there anymore at all of the early ‘60s, a world which was filled with quieter, emptier … every element in the landscape means something. These are people who have lived complicated lives, so they’re not the kind of people who have chosen these lifestyles, but who are shaped by history and whose attitudes, whose behavior and whose sense of humor comes from somewhere. It’s rooted in something. That was very important. With age, I suppose I’m more and more at odds with modern reality, so maybe that’s why I’m going back in time and place.
Typically, you’ve set up a shooting schedule that includes a break at the end of the week to reflect on what you’ve shot, but you’ve said to secure the budget you had to forgo that approach on “Ida.” Did it have an impact?
It makes sense for a director like me who treats his script just as a means to an end to shape things as you go along, and try and eliminate stuff that works on paper, but in your gut, you know it’s not that great. You just need it for the script to add up. It’s a way of working organically, in a way. We’re writing and directing and inventing, and it all goes hand-in-hand and part of the process. If I could, I try to make all my films like that. I used to make my documentaries like that. I used to shoot first stretch, then take time to edit, reflect on uncertain things, eliminate others, and then go for the kill.
I know exactly how to hit the target. I think it makes sense in fiction as well, you know? Scripts are [generally] terrible. These scripts are kind of wishful thinking, and when poor actors have to play them, it’s painful for them. You cover it up with tricks of the trade, but it’s not great. For me, it makes perfect sense that it goes against industrial logic. Those films are seen as kind of a division of labor. First somebody writes the novel, then some producer buys the novel, then they get a writer to write, then they get a director, then they cast the actors. For me, the whole thing is part of the same process, and I’m still writing as I’m rehearsing or shoot, and I’m already thinking of the directing as I’m writing. There’s no division.