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October 19, 2017

In the 1960s Polish People’s Republic, Anna, a young novice nun, is told by her prioress that before she takes her vows she must visit her aunt, Wanda Gruz, who is her only surviving relative. Anna travels to visit her aunt Wanda, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous judge who reveals that Anna’s actual name is Ida Lebenstein. Ida’s parents had been Jews who were murdered late in the German occupation of Poland during World War II (1939–45). Ida was then an infant, and as an orphan she had been raised by the convent. Wanda, who had been a Communist resistance fighter against the German occupation, had become the state prosecutor “Red Wanda” who sent “men to their deaths”. Wanda’s role alludes to “the political show trials of the early 1950s, when Poland’s Communist government used judicial terror (among other methods) to consolidate its power and eliminate its enemies.”

Wanda tells Ida that she should try some worldly sins and pleasures before she decides to take her vows. On their way to their hotel for the night, Wanda picks up a hitchhiker, Lis (Polish for “fox”), who turns out to be an alto saxophone player who is going to a gig in the same town. Wanda tries to get Ida interested in Lis, and to come to his show, but she resists until drifting down after hours to watch the little band wrapping up their evening with a song after the crowd has left. Lis is indeed drawn to Ida and talks with her before she leaves for the night to rejoin her aunt who is passed out in their room.

Ida wants to find the graves of her parents. Wanda asks her what would happen if she goes to where their bodies are buried and discovers that God is not there. Wanda takes her to the house they were born in and used to own, which is now occupied by a Pole, Feliks Skiba and his family. Wanda had left her young son with Ida’s family (Wanda’s sister and brother-in-law) during the war; the Skibas had taken over the home and land, and hidden the Lebensteins from the German authorities. Wanda, a former prosecutor, demands that Feliks and his father tell her what happened to the Lebensteins. Finally, Feliks agrees to tell them—if Ida promises that they will leave the Skibas alone and give up any claim to the house.

Feliks takes the women to the burial place in the woods and digs up the bones of their family. He admits to Ida that he took the three into the woods and killed them. Feliks says that because Ida was very small and able to pass for a Christian, he was able to give her to a convent. But Wanda’s small son was “dark and circumcised”. He couldn’t pass for a Christian child, and Feliks had killed him along with Ida’s parents. Jeremy Hicks describes some of the possible motivations for Feliks’ murders: “The implication is that he killed them for fear that he and his family might be discovered by the Nazis to be hiding Jews, and themselves be killed. But there is so much left unsaid here that the motivations for murder are left obscure. An understanding of Polish wartime history might equally push us towards explaining the murder through Polish anti-Semitism. The perception that Jews had money, or at least property, and that killing them would enable the murderers to acquire their property, is a motive that is hinted at too.”

Wanda and Ida take the bones to their family burial plot, in an abandoned, overgrown Jewish cemetery in Lublin, and bury them.

Wanda and Ida then part ways and return to their previous existences and routines, but they both have been profoundly affected by their experience, and nothing is the same. Although Wanda continues to drink and engage in apparently meaningless casual sex, she is also now mourning not only the loss of her son and sister, but the niece whom she has just met and who reminds her deeply of her sister. Ida returns to the convent but is visibly unenthusiastic about her life there, and even sees some of it with a new perspective of humour. Wanda’s melancholy deepens and she ultimately jumps to her death out of her apartment window. Ida returns to attend Wanda’s funeral, where she sees Lis again. At Wanda’s apartment, Ida changes out of her nun’s habit and into Wanda’s stilettos and evening gown, tries smoking and drinking, and then goes to Lis’ gig, where he later teaches her to dance.

After the show Ida and Lis sleep together. The next morning Lis suggests they get married, have children, and after that, live “life as usual.” After sleeping with him one more time, Ida quietly arises without awakening Lis, dons her convent habit again and leaves.

The character of Wanda Gruz is based on Helena Wolińska-Brus, although Wanda’s life and fate differ significantly from the real-life model. Like the character, Wolińska-Brus was a Jewish Pole who survived World War II as a member of the Communist resistance. In the postwar Communist regime she was a military prosecutor who was involved in show trials. One notorious example of these led to the 1953 execution of General ‘Nil’ Fieldorf, a famed resistance fighter. While Wolińska-Brus may have been involved, she was not the actual prosecutor for that trial. Pawlikowski met her in the 1980s in England, where she’d emigrated in 1971; he’s said of her that “I couldn’t square the warm, ironic woman I knew with the ruthless fanatic and Stalinist hangman. This paradox has haunted me for years. I even tried to write a film about her, but couldnʼt get my head around or into someone so contradictory.”

Some have argued that the Christian Poles in the film are portrayed negatively as being anti-Semitic and sharing responsibility for the Holocaust with the German occupiers. A letter of complaint has been sent by the Polish Anti-Defamation League to the Polish Film Institute, which provided significant funding for the film. A petition calling for the addition of explanatory title cards has apparently been signed by about 40,000 Poles; the film does not explicitly note that thousands of Poles were executed by the German occupiers for hiding or helping Jewish Poles. Eric Abraham, one of the producers of Ida, responded “Are they really suggesting that all films loosely based on historical events should come with contextual captions? Tell that to Mr. Stone and Mr. Spielberg and Mr. von Donnersmarck,” which refers to the directors of JFK, Lincoln, and The Lives of Others.

Conversely, others have argued that the character of Wanda Gruz, who participated in the persecution of those who threatened the Soviet-sponsored postwar regime, perpetuates a stereotype about Polish Jews as collaborators with the regime.

When Ida is in a church, the priest seems to be getting ready to say Mass and we see a versus populum altar, which didn’t become the norm until years later after Vatican II. The movie takes place in 1961 and the priest would have been saying Mass on the high altar.

Wanda: Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?

Anna: Yes.

Wanda: About carnal love?

Anna: No.

Wanda: That’s a shame. You should try, otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?


Lis: …come along then. You’ll listen to us play, we’ll walk on the beach.

Anna: And then?

Lis: Then we’ll buy a dog… Get married, have children… Get a house.

Anna: And then?

Lis: The usual. Life.


Wanda: What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?


Lis: You’ve no idea of the effect you have, do you?


Lis: What are you thinking about?

Anna: I’m not thinking.

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From → Film

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