Several weeks ago, I took my partner to watch "Ida", a prize winning Polish film, right when its screening in Israel has begun. Among other things, it was an opportunity for me to visit Poland again, without checking through Ben-Gurion airport.
Initially, I was puzzled with regards to when the plot is happening. It is a black and white film, which usually hints that the story took place many years ago. On the other hand, it is about a young nun who lives in a convent, and the convent had running water. So, this could not be an ancient history. But really, I should not have had these doubts. There is hardly a chance that a Polish film would be distributed in Israel commercially unless it is about WW2 and the holocaust (although it did happen with Kieslowski's "Decalog"). At about half time into the film, a Jazz band is playing John Coltrane's "Naima". Hence, this cannot be earlier than the early 1960's.
The season could be early autumn or early spring. The sky is cloudy and the ground is muddy, but it is not covered with snow, and it is not frozen. Anna, the protagonist, is that young nun, who is preparing for the ceremony of taking the vows. I am not familiar with the ceremonies of Catholicism, but I understood that this is that one ceremony when a novitiate becomes a nun. However, the mother superior summons Anna to her office, and sends her on a mission: she is to travel to her aunt, her only living relative, and stay there until she sorts out some unsorted matters. That aunt has not come to reclaim Anna from the orphanage of the convent, although many letters were sent bidding her to do so. Anna travels to that aunt, and finds out what the Israeli Jewish spectator has figured out already: Anna is a Jew, she was admitted to the convent at infancy, during the war. Her birth name was Ida.
The aunt, Wanda Gruz, lives alone in the city. When Ida knocks on her door, a man dresses up and leaves the flat. Is the aunt a prostitute? Is that why she has declined to connect to her niece? No. She is a woman of career. She works in the court of law. She is a communist, a servant of the communist regime, although possibly no longer as enthusiastic about it. She used to be a chief prosecutor, but she no longer is. Perhaps it is due to her Jewishness, perhaps it is due to her drinking problem, and perhaps it is the result of the political change that Poland has gone through in 1956. The Polish thaw, the de-Stalinization. Nevertheless, Wanda has still got a status and connections, as one can deduce from the fact that she has a modern flat and her own car. She accepts her niece, and to her niece's request, goes with her on a travel to the village where her parents used to live. Ida hopes to find the spot where her parents are buried. Wanda does not believe that it can be found, and yet, she goes out with Ida on a journey to rural Poland. On the course of the journey, the story of what happened to Ida's parents is revealed, as does a possible reason for Wanda's reluctance to contact Ida all those years. Further into the film, it will turn out that perhaps Wanda would be better off if Ida would not have entered her life.
The film is amazingly beautiful, it is skillfully written, directed and performed. It reminded me of "The white ribbon" by the Austrian Michael Haneke, of the classical "The passion of Joan of Arc" by the Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer, and of the early classics by the Swedish Ingmar Bergman. On the other hand, it reminded me of the Israeli film "Fill the Void" by Rama Burshtein, in that its portrays a young woman who is very religious and very naïve, who has lived all her life in a protecting closed social system, and then a crack is revealed in that system. But unlike Burshtein's film, and much like Haneke's film, this film is anything but naïve, and it can easily be understood why it is controversial in the country it comes from.
On one hand, the passage of Wanda and Ida leads them to a Polish farmer, who confesses to Ida that he had killed her parents with an axe. As I understand it, by depicting such a farmer, the author is taking a side in a bitter argument between conservatives and liberals in Poland. The conservatives claim that only Germans were killing Jews in Poland during WW2, that no Pole has done such a thing, perhaps other than a few marginal people, who by no means represent the noble Polish nation. That is a kind of argumentation that we in Israel know well from the discourse about Prime Minister Rabbin's murder. To that say the liberals, that there were indeed noble Poles who hid Jews and saved their lives, as there were Poles who chose not to be involved, but there were also quite several Poles who murdered Jews out of their own initiative. The way in which the author depicts the encounter with the farmer leaves no place for a doubt: this man is not some marginal character in the Polish society, a lost sheep that went outside the herd. There are many like him, and many did what he has done. Hence, conservative circles in Poland blame the author that his film is
As I am writing this, I try to imagine what conservative circles in Israel would say about an Israeli Jew who would make a film about the court that sentenced Jesus to death. 'It was not us!', they would probably cry out, 'the Romans are the ones who crucified him!'.
And on the other hand, Wanda is stating on screen that she used to be a prosecutor under the communist regime, and that she had demanded prison and death penalties to those who were considered "the enemies of the people" by that regime. From the social networks I have learned, that this character is based on a real historical figure, Helena Wolińska-Brus, a Jew who was a military prosecutor under the Stalinist regime. Those who are not familiar with the contemporary Polish culture would not know how intense are the feelings in it towards those who serviced the communist regime, especially during the Stalinist period, the early 1950's. I think that the closest thing we Israelis are familiar with is the sentiment that had been towards Jewish women who befriended with British soldiers while the Jewish struggle for independence was at its peak, in the mid 1940's. The fact that there were Jews who serviced the Communist regime in Poland is sometimes brought up as a counter argument to the assertion that there were Poles who murdered Jews on their own initiative. It is as if to say, yeah, we were not so good back then, but then again, you were not so great either. It is due to such rhetoric that the only two officials in the Polish Communist regime whose names I now know are Salomon Morel and Helena Wolińska-Brus, both Jews. Hence, I could see why liberal circles in Poland blame the author, that his choice to depict such a negative Jewish character serves the anti-Semitic case.
It might be that this is what the author had intended, to infuriate conservatives and liberals alike, Poles and Jews alike. If everyone protests, then there is a balance. And surely, the public relations of the film could well benefit from a controversy.
But I had left the cinema with a third argument in mind, one that was not very prevalent in the reviews of the film and of the controversy that I have read. The film's ending could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of whomever believe that there is a future to Jewish life in Poland, perhaps in all of Europe. I would not want to elaborate, so as not to spoil it to whomever of my readers who has not yet seen the film. Let me just say, that the final scenes could imply that there is no life for Jews in Poland other than in the loving arms of the Catholic church, and whomever chooses a different path is heading for a bad fall. Personally, I agree that there is no future for Jews in Europe, so I was not all that upset with these final scenes. But I know people who vow to the opposite opinion, and I am surprised that they have not added their voices to the controversy.
As a footnote I would like to add, that for years, my sisters and I had believed that our mother had survived the war in a Catholic convent. But for a year now, ever since a meeting we had in the Getto Fighters House museum, we no longer think that. We think that our mother had probably survived the war behind the Soviet lines, only one from her family. But in our passage to discover our mother's past, we have met women whose lives were saved that way. They are living in Israel now.