Pawel Pawlikowski has never followed convention. The Polish-born, Oxford-educated director first gained attention in the early ’90s, with several offbeat documentaries for British television, then earned critical acclaim for his debut feature, “Last Resort” (2000). He followed that up with “My Summer of Love” (2004) starring a then-unknown Emily Blunt. After a lukewarm reception to his Paris-set “The Woman in the Fifth” (2011), Pawlikowski returns to maverick form with “Ida.” Set in 1962 Poland, it’s about two women, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a cynical prosecutor, and her niece, Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), who’s about to take her vows as a nun. But before she does, she meets her aunt for the first time and the two embark on a journey to find out what happened to their family during the Nazi occupation. The film has been well received critically and commercially since it screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens here Friday.
“What surprised me most was the big turnout in Paris. That had never happened to me,” says Pawlikowski over the telephone from New York. Over the course of his career, he says, his most personal films have turned out to be his biggest successes. “I made a documentary [“From Moscow to Pietushki”] in 1989 about an unknown poet. It was a freewheeling, strange documentary that I made just for me and for my father, who had just died. It won several awards. It’s a strange thing; audiences seem to respond when I go out on a limb completely.”
“Ida,” with its stark black-and-white photography, single long takes and minimal dialogue, was Pawlikowski going out on a limb because he’d become “bored with the cinema.”
“I thought, ‘I can’t watch movies anymore.’ All its weapons, all its tricks, the grammar of it, all the tracking shots, the music, the cutting, the noise. I knew I wanted to have strong photography, because then you don’t need a lot of close-ups or hand-held cameras. You can convey emotion in a wide, static shot if you do it well. I wanted to do each scene in practically one shot. I wanted to make a film that didn’t feel like storytelling, although there’s a story. But it’s more of a meditation. You watch it in a certain state of mind — if you stay and watch it. I knew it wasn’t going to be a widely seen film, but it might turn out to be my most widely seen film. So there you go.”
Born in Warsaw in 1957, Pawlikowski left Poland in 1971, at 14, to stay with his mother in England after she remarried. “I couldn’t go back to Poland as I had left illegally and was only allowed back in to visit in the late ’70s,” he says. By 1980 he was allowed to return; and went back often after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. But he’d never shot a film there.
‘I wanted to make a film that didn’t feel like storytelling . . . it’s more of a meditation.’
“Ida,” he says, is his attempt to depict the early-’60s Poland of his boyhood memories. “It was an important period in Polish history; culturally, when censorship weakened, Stalinism faded away, and a tiny margin of freedom was grabbed with both hands by a young generation who started playing great jazz music and writing books that were not imitative of any other culture. Polish culture at that time was at its most interesting, which often happens with authoritarian cultures, because all that was pent-up just explodes. I made this film in the same ‘I don’t give a damn’ spirit. I wanted to make a film that doesn’t imitate anything, doesn’t pander, doesn’t try to cover issues. It was a challenge to enter that spirit with both anarchic and disciplined filmmaking.”
Pawlikowski’s four-feature oeuvre is filled with complicated women, or girls, in the case of “My Summer of Love.” It was that film that first impressed Trzebuchowska, who is currently finishing her bachelor of arts degree at the University of Warsaw.
“I saw ‘My Summer of Love’ as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me. I really liked this weird and mysterious relationship between the girls,” Trzebuchowska says in an e-mail interview. “After ‘Ida’ came to an end, I decided to watch ‘My Summer of Love’ again, and it turned out that I still have the same feelings about it.”
It was Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska who first spotted Trzebuchowska in a Warsaw cafe.
“We were sitting in the same cafe and Malgorzata took a picture of me, which I didn’t notice, and sent it to Pawel,” recalls Trzebuchowska. “Then she contacted the production office, where I shot one short scene from the script. After a while I met Pawel. We talked, did some rehearsals and, as it turned out, it was the beginning. It seemed so incredible that I didn’t even have time to think if I would manage. Things like that do not happen every day. I trusted Pawel and believed he knew what he was doing.”
The heart of the film is the relationship between jaded, worldly Wanda and young, sheltered Ida, whose luminous presence underscores the film’s themes of guilt and innocence, saint and sinner, earthy and ethereal.
“Wanda is not a sentimental character; there’s no pathos,” says Pawlikowski. “She had a heroic life as a revolutionary, but after 1956, communism started looking like a joke. They are both women of faith, but Wanda’s faith has stopped carrying her. Ida is a woman of God. She is not a common creature. There are not many people like that: Irregardless of religion, they have that and don’t need the world so much.”