I was surprised and delighted last night when Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for the powerful Ida. I thought the film was the underdog but it must have strongly resonated with Academy voters as it did with me when I first saw it last May. In 1962 Poland, 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is preparing to become a nun at the convent where she has lived since she was orphaned as a child. The Mother Superior tells Anna that she has one living relative that she must visit before taking her vows. The young woman soon finds herself in the presence of her aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza), her late mother’s sister who, she learns, is not only a former hard-line Communist Party insider but also a Jew. Anna is shocked to discover that her real name is Ida and that her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This revelation sets Anna, now Ida, on a journey to uncover her roots and confront the truth about her family. Together, the two women embark on a voyage of discovery of each other and their past. Ida has to choose between her birth identity and the religion that saved her from certain death. And Wanda must confront decisions she made during the War when she chose loyalty to the cause before family.

In this beautiful, haunting film, Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) returns to his native Poland to confront some of the more contentious issues in recent Polish history. Winner of top prizes at the Toronto, London, and Warsaw Film Festivals before nabbing the Oscar during last night’s festivities , Ida is a masterful evocation of a defining historical moment. Coming from a long line of Polish Jews myself, I felt a strong personal connection to the film, especially when Ida’s parents’ village in the film happened to be the Polish shtetl where my great-grandparents were from. I enjoyed talking to this talented director.

Danny Miller: I was floored not only by the content of this film but also by the stunning black-and-white cinematography and the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio you used. For me, Ida evoked some of Ingmar Bergman’s early films.

Pawel Pawlikowski: Bergman definitely used that format very well, but my main reason was that when I think of that period now, I imagine it in black and white. It sort of gives you the feel of going through old family albums from the early 1960s. I was also trying to remove this story from actual time, I wanted to make it more abstract. To me the film is more of a meditation than a linear story.

American filmmakers would no doubt have gotten a lot of pushback from producers if they tried to do a story in black and white in this country. Did you have to deal with such concerns?

Yes! When I told one of our financiers at the beginning how I was going to make the film, he said, “Come on! You’re better than that!” Some of the financiers even dropped out. We started production without having all of the funds in place, it was pretty discouraging at first. Our producer came back from Cannes and said, “There’s no way this is going to sell!”

Because the content was seen as controversial?

More like the way we wanted to show that content. We could have easily done a more middle brow, kitschy Hollywood version of the story and some people were hoping we’d do that. Something with more Oscar potential! But for me that was never an option.  Those types of films irritate me the most. I’m fine with very commercial films or very artistic films but what I really hate are those movies that are vaguely literary, beautifully acted and photographed middle brow pap!

This film is not sentimental at all. Every character displays a lot of flaws and complexities. But, of course, that only makes them more interesting. Wanda, for example, does some pretty reprehensible things but I couldn’t help but fall in love with her.

Wanda is great. Some people are upset that I’ve made someone who is basically a Stalinist prosecutor so likable. But I agree with you, I have a lot of affection for her!

I can’t remember if it’s ever stated in the film how she managed to survive the war.

Wanda was fighting in the Communist underground. She didn’t consider herself Jewish first and foremost — she was a Communist activist. A lot of these pro-Communist Poles ended up in Moscow during the war and that could have been her route. But in my mind, she stayed in Poland and fought in the Resistance with the Communists.

And because her sister ended up marrying a much more observant Jewish guy, that’s how she got swallowed up in the Nazi nightmare?

Yes — more observant and also more rural. I love when Wanda says proudly, “We were from Lublin!” as if that’s some kind of major metropolis. But they were basically city girls — one, Ida’s mother, with very simple expectations of life, and one, Wanda, who was focused on her activism. I never explain this in the film but in my back story, Wanda had a child out of wedlock with one of her fellow activists. She felt her baby would be much better off with her sister, even before the war. And then all that happened. But she pretty much gave up a child for the sake of her ideals.

I liked Wanda, but the more I think about it, the more enraged I get that she never tried to contact her beloved sister’s child as the girl was growing up. Ida is her only living relative!

I know but remember the life she was living. I’m sure she didn’t think it would be so great for this child to be under her care. Also, Wanda spent a lot of time repressing that part of her life. She was busy building her career in the Communist Party which quite a few Jewish people did in Poland during those years. These people didn’t want to be defined by their ethnic background.


I imagine that in real life there must have been children left in these convents who grew up not knowing about their Jewish background?

Yes. I found this great monastery where we were originally going to shoot the convent scenes. It was in the perfect location and I remember this priest taking us around to look at it, a really lovely guy. When he read the script he told me something very similar had happened right there in that monastery — only with a boy. The monastery was in a small town like so many in Poland before the war — about 40 percent of the population was Jewish. Ida’s story really touched this priest.

So why did you end up not filming there?

Because there was this very nasty bishop in a nearby city who read the script and didn’t like it for some reason. He put a stop to the idea of us filming in the monastery. He wasn’t overtly anti-Semitic but there was something there.

Do you think there’s still a lot of denial in Poland about what happened to the country’s Jews during the war and how some Poles were complicit in those crimes?

I think Poland is a very complicated society. It’s also a democratic society now so you’ll find people who are in total denial and others who are into digging everything up. I think there’s a healthy debate going on nowadays — this is not a country that’s sweeping anything under the carpet anymore.

What did you learn about the plight of the Jews in Poland when you were a little boy in school?

Not much. I don’t think the reason was anti-Semitism at that time, I think it was more political. During that period, Poland needed to be seen as the victim of the Nazis. Ever since West Germany re-armed in the 1950s, the Polish government and the Communist bloc played the victim card constantly. It was a kind of bargaining chip — they had no interest in complicating that narrative — except when it suited them. There was this famous pogrom in Kielce in 1947 that was provoked by the state. About 140 Jews died in Kielce, people who had survived the war and had come back. It was one of the many inglorious moments in Polish history, but it was used to confuse the elections that were happening then. They said, “Look, our population is a little dodgy so let’s turn to the Communist way — the New Poland!”

I guess it really wasn’t in their interest back then to explore the more difficult aspects of what happened during the war — the heroic actions of many Poles as well as the despicable actions of others.

No, but you shouldn’t forget that in a non-democratic society with total censorship, that’s never going to happen. Who is going to examine that history? But after 1989, as soon as communism fell, books started to appear, and the genie was out of the bottle. Some of the nationalists still denied everything while the liberal progressives kept digging it up.

All of the characters in this film seem to have a lot of baggage. I was fascinated by the character of Szymon, who hid Ida’s parents for part of the war but who had a very complicated relationship with the family.

Yes. I had a whole back story about him that I ended up dropping because it would have been too much. What I first had in the script was that Szymon took them in — and remember there was a death penalty for anyone who was hiding Jews — and he was clearly in love with Ida’s mother. His son was furious that he was risking the lives of his family members for the sake of this Jewess.

I’m guessing that the Hollywood version of this story would have included war-time flashbacks. Did you ever consider doing that?

Definitely not! The film had a certain structure that I had to obey. I wanted to suggest more than explain.

I love this film precisely because it doesn’t hit you over the head with a specific ideology or some clear-cut notion of the good guys versus the bad guys. Do you think the film is starting a lot of conversations in Poland?

Yes, I think so. It fits right into the ongoing debate in the country. Which is not to say there aren’t detractors on both sides. I try to ignore the right-wingers who are denouncing the film without even even seeing it and scream that it’s an anti-Polish film. And then there are some left-wing Jewish journalists who say it’s anti-Semitic because it appeals to the idea that it was the Jews who brought Communism to Poland. But I think the majority of Poles took the film in exactly the right spirit and that they accept the complicated characters. I try to ignore the other people because they’re really talking about themselves more than the movie.

I think this story would appeal to people from any background.

It’s true. I’ve screened it in festivals from Korea to Colombia, and now it just opened in Spain. I’ve found that any place where there’s been some big tragedy in living memory with bodies buried and a divided nation, those people can strongly relate to the film. They may not know anything about Polish history but they understand that life is full of these tragedies and paradoxes.

Ida is now available on Netflix and other online platforms.