We are so used to constant movement and compulsive cutting in American movies that the stillness of the great new Polish film “Ida” comes as something of a shock. I can’t recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture; from the beginning, I was thrown into a state of awe by the movie’s fervent austerity. Friends have reported similar reactions: if not awe, then at least extreme concentration and satisfaction. This compact masterpiece has the curt definition and the finality of a reckoning—a reckoning in which anger and mourning blend together. The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, left Poland years ago, for England, where he linked up with the English-born playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. After making documentaries for British television, Pawlikowski began directing features in English, including “My Summer of Love” (2004), with Emily Blunt, then unknown, and “The Woman in the Fifth” (2012), with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. “Ida” is a charged, bitter return. Set in 1961, during the Stalinist dictatorship, the movie pushes still further into the past; almost every element in the story evokes the war years and their aftermath. The filmmakers have confronted a birthplace never forgiven but also never abandoned. […]
Whatever he [Paweł Pawlikowski] says, he’s made a movie that breathes history in every frame, and his annoyance reminds me of D. H. Lawrence’s remark, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” All right, then: again and again, “Ida” asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.
It was the sort of script you could raise the money on, but definitely not the film I wanted to make. Not just because of our over-written dialogue, dodgy plotting and dramatic wishful thinking, but because what I was after was a different kind of film altogether, one for which it would have been much more difficult to attract any funding. The film I was after would be made of strong graphic images and sounds. It would work through suggestion rather than explanation. It would mainly consist of self-contained scenes, done from one angle, in one continuous take, with no informational dialogue, no functional shots, no plot devices or any of the usual tricks cinema uses to suggest or elicit emotion. A film in which form, emotion, idea would be one. […]
I spend my life inventing stories, finding images and playing with ideas, but it’s only when things are in motion and I’m up against it that I become seriously creative. The writing never stops. The inventing, the distilling, keeps going during the whole process; the casting, the rehearsing, the scouting, the sleepless nights. Even during the shooting. That’s the beauty of film-making for me. Which is why I always ask producers for a five-day week, so I can tweak during the shoot and get some sleep. I also ask for a three- or four-week break in the middle, to edit and rewrite the film that’s emerging. […]
Then it all changed. The sales people who went to Cannes discovered that the prospects of pre-selling a black-and-white Polish-language movie on a grim subject with unknown actors were pretty hopeless. The work was halted and the film abandoned until further notice. Until one day Ewa Puszczynska decided that it would be a shame to give up so far down the line and we should plough on regardless. We had half the budget in place from the Polish Film Institute and we could try to find the rest of the money along the way. Ida’s English producer Eric Abraham, who’d backed the script and development, agreed to this plan and offered to cashflow things for a while.
Now everybody’s eyes turned to me. I was told the film could go ahead only if I agreed to lose a week’s filming and give up on my promised rewriting break in the middle. There was no room to wriggle. It was take it or leave it … and I took it. I was too involved with the story, with the team, with Poland, to let it drop. I took the plunge knowing that there was no way I could ever shoot the script as written and scheduled, and that basically only a miracle could save me.