World War II may have ended in the mid-1940s. The concentration camps were liberated and those who survived the horrors of the era were supposed to get on with their lives. But for many, the war never really concluded. The brutality of the time and the decisions made by individuals of all backgrounds reverberated through their souls, in many cases for the rest of their lives.
This is true both for the survivors of the camps as well as-- in some but not all cases-- those who perpetrated acts of violence against the victims of Nazi tyranny. This is among the themes explored in IDA, a quietly powerful drama filmed in stark black-and-white and directed and co-scripted by Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski.
IDA is set in Poland during the early 1960s, or almost two decades after the end of the war. One of the central characters is Anna, a young woman who was orphaned as a very young child. She grew up in a convent, which is the only world she knows, and is just about to take her vows and become a nun. Before doing so, she is dispatched to visit her only living relative: her Aunt Wanda, whom she has never met. Upon arriving in her aunt's apartment, Anna is informed by Wanda that she was born a Jew. Her real name is Ida Lebenstern.
How will Anna-- or, Ida-- respond to this news? Will she still want to spend all her future years in the seclusion of a convent? The scenario follows what happens when the two women commence a road trip in which they search for a man who knew Ida's parents, as well as the location of their family members' graves. In other words, on this trip, Ida and Wanda are both acknowledging and seeking out their roots. As they do so, a question hovers over them like a dark cloud: How did they manage to survive the war while so many of their loved ones perished?
IDA is a film that oozes intelligence and feeling. On one level, in the manner in which the character of Wanda is drawn, the film reflects on the ultimate failure of the communist power elite to offer any sort of optimism for the masses in post-war Eastern Europe. But it also is a story of lingering attitudes toward Jews not just in Poland but in any locale that was in striking distance of a concentration camp or a Jewish ghetto.
IDA also is a film about identity, and what happens to you when you hide your identity-- or have it hidden from you. It also is a film about memory, about the ghosts of World War II who haunted those who were not liquidated by the Nazis. How does an individual who somehow has survived the Holocaust live with those memories? Indeed, how does any individual live with any memory that is painful, hurtful, horrific?
IDA may not be set during World War II. It is not loaded with vivid, graphic images depicting Nazis bullying or butchering helpless Jews and others who were victimized by Hitler and his Third Reich. However, like certain films that are set after the war and that spotlight the lives of concentration camp survivors-- included among them are such classics as THE PAWNBROKER and SOPHIE'S CHOICE-- IDA is as much about the whats and hows of World War II as THE PIANIST or SCHINDLER'S LIST or any film whose story unfolds during the war.
And lastly, the release of IDA at this point in time is proof that not all the year's top films come to theaters after Labor Day.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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