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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 31, 2015
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Bouquets Abroad, Brickbats at Home
March 31, 2015   
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The Academy Award grabbed by the Polish drama Ida may be the biggest success for Polish cinema in decades, yet the movie has stirred much controversy at home over the characters and events depicted in it.

Directed by British-based Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, becoming the first Polish movie in history to win the coveted statuette after a total of nine nominations over the past 50 years. Pawlikowski, 57, who has lived abroad since he turned 14, succeeded in doing something that some of Poland’s most accomplished directors failed to do before him.

The first Oscar nomination for a movie from Poland came in 1964 for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and was followed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh in 1966. Less than a decade later, Polish movies nabbed Best Foreign Language Film nominations in three consecutive years. The first was The Deluge by Jerzy Hoffman in 1974, followed by Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land in 1975, and Jerzy Antczak’s Nights and Days in 1976. Wajda reprised his feat with nominations for The Maids of Wilko in 1978 and Man of Iron in 1981. After receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2000, Wajda managed one more Best Foreign Language Film nomination with Katyn in 2007. The last Polish movie to be nominated for an Academy Award before Ida was Agnieszka Holland’s war drama In Darkness in 2011.

Pawlikowski, an Oxford graduate in literature and philosophy, began his filmmaking career shooting documentaries for the BBC. His work focused on Russia, and the central figures in his documentaries included popular Russian writer Venedikt Yerofeyev and the enfant terrible of Russian politics, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In 2000, Pawlikowski directed his first feature film Last Resort that centered on a Russian woman who came to live in Britain. The follow-up to Last Resort was My Summer of Love (2004), a drama that earned Pawlikowski his second BAFTA award (Best British Film) and launched the international career of actress Emily Blunt.

Ida opened in Poland in October 2013 and oddly enough, given the international success that followed, it was only seen by 114,000 viewers, playing to almost empty houses. Meanwhile, it drew over 500,000 viewers when it was released in France and was generally more popular abroad that in Poland. So far, the film has played in over 40 countries, including the United States, where it became an unexpected success. It was seen by 600,000 Americans in six months and made $3.7 million at the U.S. box office, the second best result for a foreign movie screened in the United States in 2014.

Set in the Poland of the 1960s, Ida is a story of two women, the novice nun of the title and her aunt, who Ida never knew existed. An orphan raised in a cloister, Ida is about to take her final vows, but before she does that, the nuns want her to meet her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda Gruz. The latter is a former Stalinist prosecutor and now a judge in a court of law. She tells Ida that they are both Jewish and that Ida’s parents were killed by a Pole. Ida also learns her real last name is Lebenstein. The prosecutor with a troubled past and the innocent soon-to-be nun with an identity crisis embark on a soul-searching journey during which more family secrets, many of them tragic, are revealed.

Apart from the Oscar, Pawlikowski’s minimalist drama, shot in black-and-white and devoid of a score, has garnered over 60 other awards, including a BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language and the Spanish Goya award for Best European Film. Ida has also won praise from politicians. In December last year, the European Parliament gave Ida its LUX Prize, founded in 2007 and granted to movies that encourage discussion on values that are at the core of the EU. On presenting the prize, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that “by presenting an analysis of growing up in Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski revealed the abyss of the European soul in its darkest moments.”

Despite the success and rave reviews, Ida has stirred a lot of controversy in Poland, drawing harsh criticism from right-wing groups in this country and, somewhat surprisingly, Jewish organizations. According to a rightist Polish website, Ida has been “aggressively promoted” among Europe’s high society and in Hollywood, which “coincides with attempts made by Germans to pin the responsibility for the war casualties of 1939-1945 on Nazis of unspecified nationality, while Poles are depicted [in the movie] as oppressors rather than World War II victims.” An organization called Reduta Dobrego Imienia, which is the Polish equivalent to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, has collected over 60,000 signatures under a petition demanding that the opening or end titles of Ida be complemented with some historical background. The makers of Ida, Polish government institutions and film industry organizations alike have ruled out such a move, deeming any such interference with a work of cinematic art unacceptable.

What Polish rightists find particularly outraging about Ida is that the aunt character is based on Helena Wolińska-Brus, one of the most infamous figures in Poland’s early postwar history. A Stalinist military prosecutor with the rank of lieutenant, Wolińska-Brus was the prosecutor in the trial of Brig. Gen. August Fieldorf, one of the highest-ranking commanders of Poland’s Home Army, the largest armed resistance formation in Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1953, the communist authorities executed Fieldorf on charges of the alleged murders of Polish guerrillas and Soviet soldiers. Wolińska-Brus left Poland in 1968 in the wake of a government anti-Jewish campaign and settled in Oxford, Britain. After communism fell, Poland applied to the British authorities for Wolińska-Brus’s extradition, but that never happened. Wolińska-Brus, who died in 2008, never showed remorse and until her last days, she described the charges against her as a sign of “Polish anti-Semitism.” Pawlikowski met Wolińska-Brus in person while he was a student at Oxford. He says he first wanted to make a documentary about her, but she refused. Instead, many years later Pawlikowski used her as inspiration for a character in his movie.

The Stalinist prosecutor of Jewish ancestry and several other themes in Ida have also irritated several Jewish organizations. They are accusing Pawlikowski of perpetuating the so-called “Judeo-Communism” (żydokomuna) theory under which communism in postwar Poland was allegedly mainly built by Jews. Many senior communist officials in the early postwar years hailed from Jewish families and there were also many Jews in the communist security services. Most historians agree, however, that trying to equate Jewish descent with dedication to turning Poland into a communist country is a simplistic view of history at best.

None of the flak from the right and left has ruined the moment for the Ida team. Pawlikowski has said in interviews that he was prepared for such controversy and had never intended to make a historical movie or one with a political message. What he wanted, Pawlikowski says, was to focus on human drama in turbulent times.

In light of recent tensions between Russia and Poland, it seemed ironic that Ida found unlikely supporters among Russian journalists. As soon as the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced, the Russian media started singing the praises of Pawlikowski’s movie, telling readers that Ida should be the obvious choice for Academy Award members. This was evidently an attempt to divert public attention from the anti-establishment Russian movie Leviathan that was also in the Oscar race. Directed by Anatoly Zvyagintsev, Leviathan is a gloomy and depressing story of a man wrestling with omnipresent corruption and abuse of power in the Russian provinces. Critics describe Leviathan as a masterpiece that paints a depressing picture of what it is like to live in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
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