During Poland’s many years under different occupying powers, Polish mothers came to serve as the preservers of the culture, carrying on traditions, history, and the native language at home. The idea of the feminine as the link to a buried past underlies the instigating incident of Ida, a film about an orphaned nun who learns she is Jewish from her aunt, a powerful pro-Stalinist judge with an independent outlook. The two embark on a road trip to uncover painful recent history against the only slightly thawed backdrop of rural Poland in 1961. FILM COMMENT interviewed Warsaw-born director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) from London about his film. Ida, which opens on Friday, screened at Toronto and Sundance and was the closing-night film of the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival. 

Ida Pawel Pawlikowski

You originally worked on this script with Cezary Harasimowicz, and it had more of an action feel to it. Why did you feel the need to change the story, and why did you choose to work with Rebecca Lennkiewicz?

It wasn’t about the writers. It was where I was with the story. I usually write my own scripts, and I like to have a partner to kick it around with. So when I was kicking it around with Cezary, I was actually working on two other scripts, and I wasn’t really focused on this one. I was knocking around ideas, and out of it came something a little clichéd and mechanical. When I came back to the project later, I reconfigured it and tried to make it less plotty, less obvious. Basically the sort of film that I’d like it to be, the sort of film I like. I also wanted to introduce the character of the aunt, Wanda, who wasn’t very prominent in the first attempt. 

But I usually work on the script throughout the whole process—I re-wrote whole sections of Ida in prep, during rehearsals and even during the filming. It’s not like there’s a script and then I go and execute it. The script is always growing, evolving in my own peculiar method. It’s not like the usual film made in the U.S. or even in Britain. It’s more like an ongoing process based on a simple structure that then gets complicated, simplified again, complicated again, introduces some characters, takes them out, and slowly distills something in the end that’s very simple. 

So when you’re collaborating with someone, do they come in towards the beginning of the project, or towards the end, or throughout?

Usually the beginning. Part of the problem with my method is that you need 60 or 80 pages completed to get funding, so a lot of it is trying to knock out something that you can go to funders with while knowing that it’s going to be worked on and improved. So the whole filmmaking process is like a dance with a series of partners: at some point it’s a co-writer, then it becomes the production designers, the actors, and the DP. It’s a series of collaborations but in the end, it’s all part of the same process. Even if I’m working with the actors and a DP and a good production designer, I keep thinking, inventing, and scrapping things. Writing and all the rest of it is part of the same process. It’s a very odd method, but I keep getting away with it.

Ida Pawel Pawlikowski

The film has a very distinctive look that reflects films shot in the Sixties, from the use of black and white and the academy ratio. What films did you revisit when preparing to shoot this?

None, really. I watch films all the time, but there wasn’t an obvious source for this one. I keep watching 8 ½ by Fellini, which has nothing to do with this, but because it gets me worked up about the whole business of filmmaking. I used to love the films of the Czech New Wave in the late Sixties, but I wasn’t watching them now for this. It’s like I have a group of films that I’ve watched for decades, and they’re somewhere in there.

The real inspiration for how this film looks was my impatience with cinema, where the vein of cinema is going. I wanted to make an anti-cinema film where there are no pointless camera moves, no pointless close-ups. I’m not emotionally excited by the power of cinema’s tricks anymore. Maybe it’s my personal midlife crisis. I’d love to see something that was calm and meditative, where you suggest more than show, where each kind of shot has some kind of density and tension, not just in the drama and the acting, but in the visuals, and where acting and image and sound are all part of the same thing. When I watch most films, with some exception, I always ask myself: “Why is the camera moving? Why is there a close-up now? Why does this have to be handheld now?” It was a way of purifying, getting rid of habits, and doing something really simply. Looking at a picture, contemplating it, while not really reading the emotional charge. But staying away from the kind of cinema rhetoric that I’m finding myself more and more impatient with. Maybe it’s my last film, like a farewell to my career—although I don’t have much of a career.

My family’s photo albums from that period also influenced me. Not literally restaging them, but just the atmosphere of these photographs. It’s not like they’re great photographs, but there’s something about them that gave me an impulse to do it like this. That’s how I remember that time, through the prism of early childhood memories, and from family albums.

I think the way in which things are framed, and how much sky is in every shot—when you’re in a rural area, that’s what dominates. It’s beautiful but also oppressive.

That’s good to hear. That wasn’t the intention from the beginning. I only wanted to not move the camera and have the 4:3 in black and white. But when I was doing camera rehearsals in some locations, I was sort of bored with the framing of it in a wide shot, so I asked the cameraman to tilt up just to see what it would give us, and it looked interesting. There was something forlorn about the characters with all that sky above them. Usually people get lost horizontally in landscapes, but here they look lost vertically. But then because I liked it, I kept going like that—it was more intuitive than an intellectual decision.

Pawel Pawlikowski Ida

Returning to the idea of collaboration, how did you balance working with the two different cinematographers?

The first cinematographer [Ryszard Lenczewski] dropped out very soon, partly because he fell ill, but also because he didn’t like where it was going. So I ended up shooting it with the camera operator, Lukasz Zal, who’d never DP’d a film before, and had no fear and no reputation to lose. He was really positive, enthusiastic, and brave. Lukasz was a real blessing because he’s a talented lighting cameraman, but his enthusiasm for doing something rather eccentric helped me with the whole process because that excited him, and we started contributing in the same direction.

It does look like the work of someone who’s very established. Which is also true of Agata Trzebuchowska [who played Anna/Ida], who you chose for this part after fellow director Malgorzata Szumowska spotted her in a Warsaw café. How did you balance working with a nonprofessional and working with an actress [Agata Kulesza, who played Wanda] who has a great deal of experience?

Well, they have different needs as actors. In the end, my only criterion in all of these different parts of the process is if it doesn’t ring true, if it isn’t exciting, if it isn’t expressive, I get rid of it. During rehearsals with the actors, we figured out what does and doesn’t work. I cast well, so I knew that the two knew what they were doing. What matters is what’s there on the screen at the end of the process, so when I’m looking through the viewfinder of the monitor, I like this, I don’t like that…The older actress [Kulesza], the virtuoso, was offering a lot, and what she was offering needed to be channeled all the time, sculpted, and often reduced. And she got into the character really deeply, because she rehearsed and researched a lot, and we spent a lot of time thinking through Wanda’s character. With the younger Agata, it was using some characteristics she has, and sculpting within them, and then, at some point, livening her up. The good thing is that they both got on really well, and the older Agata created, or helped to create space for, the younger Agata so she didn’t overwhelm her with her personality and the personality of her character. She left space for Ida to exist, which was not easy.

It was also difficult because there was no coverage in the film. There were few cuts inside the scenes, basically: most scenes were done in one take. So to have both of them perform while the lighting’s right, when the framing’s right—the camera doesn’t move, so you can’t correct anything during the take, and then you can’t cut your way out of trouble either. It was a challenge that frightened everyone at first, but then they got motivated by it. They felt this concentration: everything has to happen from this angle in this image. It really created a bit of magic.

You shot this with only one camera?

There were no cuts. Each scene was done mainly from one angle. We didn’t rearrange lights for each scene. This was the ideal shot for this scene, these are the ideal movements of the actors, so they need to coincide and feed off each other, all in one take.

Pawel Pawlikowski Ida

What were your guiding principles in terms of filmmaking when telling this story?

The general thing is to take things away. With production designers, the obvious thing to do is to create a realistic environment with bits and pieces from the period. And what I was doing was constantly taking away and leaving only a limited number of objects in the shot, which would carry more force. So the image isn’t an imitation of reality, but it’s a reality in its own right. It works through suggestion rather than replicating reality. The work we did there was finding the right elements and stripping away all the make-believe realism, the extras. Not to try to imitate reality, trying to get away from the pseudo-realism—a shaky camera, a lot of camera moves and extras. I was more interested in a stripped-down suggestive world, which has some of the quality of dreams. When you finish watching this film, you remember it as some dream landscape rather than some replica of reality.

Yes, absolutely. The intentional sparseness in the frame you mentioned, plus other, unintentional, uncontrollable things, like fog or haziness.

The funny thing is I would cut out images that seemed too beautiful. I tried hard for the images not to feel like beautiful images in their own right. They would never be divorced from the emotional content and the actors’ presence, from the dramatic subtext of the scene. I get annoyed by pretty photography that's in love with itself, that doesn't point beyond itself.

Ida Pawel Pawlikowski

It wouldn’t fit the subject matter. Did your background as a musician influence how music fits into the film?

Again the idea, like in every other area, was “less is more.” I would only put in bits of music that really had some kind of a charge. And that includes the pop songs of the period, which I remember from my early childhood and haunt me still, and Coltrane, and a bit of Bach and Mozart. It was basically bits of music that I like and thought would enhance the film. I didn’t want “filmy” music in the film. And the sound design is very simple as well, but it’s very hard to do simple sound design because most films attempt to imitate reality, so there’s just a lot of noise. Whereas here, there’s not a lot of camera movement, there’s not much going on, so each little noise is very crucial. So that was a tricky process with the sound mixer who had never done this type of quiet film before, where every scene isn’t rescued by music. But here, the music comes in as a dramatic character—they were dramatic events in the film. There was no score composed for the film, except for the two bits that seep in, but I didn’t want it to be noticeable. Mostly it’s just selected sounds of that world, very few elements that suggest, rather than replicating reality.

This was your first film made in Poland. Was the experience of shooting there different from previous films you’ve made? What was the reception there like?

The experience wasn’t so different—the crews are great in Poland, and everyone was really excited by the project and the kind of weirdness of it, I suppose. It was great doing the location scouting because it allowed me to discover my country again, and I spent weeks and weeks driving around finding the right farmhouse and small town. I hadn’t spent much time outside of Warsaw, which I visit regularly, before this. We had a really lively, creative team, who I hadn’t worked with before, and it was great to “discover” them.

Generally, the reception was very enthusiastic—we won two festivals—and pleased that there was a Polish film that didn’t try to imitate preexisting cinema. In Poland, we had a tradition of original cinema once in the late Fifties and Sixties, and then there was Kieslowski, but a lot of Polish cinema just imitates Western cinema, especially Anglo-Saxon cinema—not just commercial thrillers or romantic comedies, but Ken Loach-style social realism. And this film isn’t about an issue, or social problems, nor is it a romantic comedy or a thriller. So some people seem to like that it’s of its own kind, and has the confidence Polish cinema once had to go its own way. There were some fringe political reactions—I’m talking about some patriotic voices, patriotic in the wrong sense—that it’s an anti-Polish film, and some people didn’t like that she leaves the secular world in the end, that she turns her back on life. There were all sorts of comments, but I’ve never had such great reviews in all my life. I was taken aback a bit.

I tried to make a film that’s resonant, but not in the least explanatory or didactic—that feels coherent but doesn’t teach you a lesson. She’s a particular character, and it’s difficult to be in Poland in 1961, and to be a woman—I mean, what options are there? Both heroines finish with the impossibility of life. So I didn’t want to stir things up too much, but just allow the audience to enter that space created by the film and make it resonate differently for everyone.