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'Ida' Director Made Film To 'Recover The Poland' Of His Childhood


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, directed and co-wrote the film, "Ida," which is nominated for two Oscars, best foreign-language film and best cinematography. New Yorker film critic David Denby described it as a compact masterpiece. Pawlikowski describes "Ida" as a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music.

"Ida" is set in 1962 in Poland, where Pawlikowski lived until he was 14. The character Ida is a young woman who was orphaned and raised in a convent. Days before she's scheduled to take her vows as a nun, the mother superior tells her that Ida's aunt, her only surviving relative, is coming to get her, and Ida should spend as much time as necessary with her. Soon after they meet for the first time, the aunt informs Ida that Ida is actually Jewish, and her parents were killed in the woods during the Holocaust. Ida and her aunt, who became a state prosecutor in Poland's Stalinist era, set out to find the grave. Pawel Pawlikowski also made the film, "My Summer Of Love." "Ida" has only played art houses, but it's streaming on Netflix.

Pawel Pawlikowski, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the premise of the movie, which is a young novitiate about to become a nun learns that she's from a Jewish family who was killed in the Holocaust. What led you to that premise, to that idea?

PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: Eight years ago, I came across a story of a Polish priest who discovered, a little like my heroine, that he was of Jewish origins. And he'd survived the war as a child in a monastery, then grew up to be a priest. And in his 30s, he discovered the truth about his background, and he started taking interest in his Jewish background and started trying to combine his Christian and his Jewish heritages. And I think he's still trying to do it right now. But it just got me thinking how - what an interesting case, you know, and what a good starting point for a story. I didn't want to tell his story. I just wanted to tell a story which is along these lines. So I started writing around that.

GROSS: So the character of Ida's aunt, Wanda - she survived. She's Jewish, of course, and she survived the war. Much of her family did not. And then she went on, during the Communist era in Poland, to become a prosecutor for the state - big trials - and she describes herself as having sent a few enemies of the people to their deaths in the '50s. So she's found a way to survive in the Communist state. And like, she survived World War II, she's surviving communism, but you really get the feeling that she hates herself. Did somebody inspire the character of Ida's aunt, Wanda?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, in a very roundabout way. I did come across a lady in - a very charming older lady - in Oxford in the early '80s. She was the wife of a professor at Wolfson College, Oxford, roughly in her mid-70s. And you know, they invited me to their house for dinner and drinks occasionally because there were not many Polish speakers in Oxford at the time. And I became quite friendly and very fond of this lady who was warm, witty, ironic, very wise about the world. And it wasn't until 10 years later that I heard on BBC News that the Polish government was requesting the extradition of this very lady on the grounds of crimes against humanity because in the '50s - early '50s - she was indeed a Stalinist state prosecutor, and she was in charge of enduring show trials of innocent people who were just, you know, standing in the way. So, you know, that was a bit shocking and mystifying, and I just couldn't get my head around how, you know, this very warm, wise, generous older woman was once, you know, state prosecutor under Stalinism.

GROSS: So getting back to your character of Ida, the young novitiate who grew up in the nunnery and is now confronted with the fact that she's really of Jewish heritage and wants to, with her aunt, find the place where her parents are buried. You know, in the Jewish religion, you're born into it. If your birth mother is Jewish, you're Jewish. But Ida was orphaned. She was raised by nuns since she was a baby, and she grew up in the Catholic faith. That's all she knows. So what is she? I mean, it raises the question of, like, what is faith? Is it something you're born into or something you choose? Is it something you're brought up in? Did you go through a lot of thinking about that when you were writing the movie?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, and I've been thinking about that throughout my life. I grew up in a secular environment, you know, in the '60s and '70s. My mother's family was Catholic, but you know, just very kind of conventionally Catholic. You know, nothing - there was nothing, you know, extreme about their version of religion. And my father was a free spirit, you know? He had no time for religion at all. I discovered, slowly, that he was actually Jewish, but not that it seemed to mean much to him at the time. He had a very secular imagination, so...

GROSS: You say it didn't mean anything to him that he was Jewish, but didn't his mother, your grandmother, die in Auschwitz?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, I discovered that - yeah, I did discover that in my sort of mid-late-teens, and he didn't make a, you know - he didn't tell me that straight out, you know? I found it in some paperwork that I found lying around. So, yeah, that came a bit of a shock. And clearly he was kind of, you know, hiding something or hiding or not wanting to make a big deal of it. He had a thing all his life about not seeming to be a victim, you know - not even a victim of the communist state or not a victim of anything. He was just, like, a man who could do all sorts of things and not an ounce of self-pity or, you know, sentimentalism. And he was very generous. He was a wonderful doctor, by the way. He was very, very loved by many people and very humane and understanding for everybody's reasons.

GROSS: Did the fact that your father's mother died in Auschwitz affect you wanting to tell this story, the story of two women who lost family in World War II in Poland? They weren't killed by the Nazis, but they were killed because of the Nazis.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, it was one of the reasons, but it wasn't the only or the main, even, reason, you know? I think - you know, the big trauma in my life, personally, was the fact that at 14, I was taken out of Poland unwittingly because my parents were divorced. Left the country - my mother left for England with her new husband. I wasn't even aware that she'd married him. And I suddenly found myself, at 14, in England and cut off from my whole childhood - my friends, my, you know, new girlfriend and my courtyard, and there was no way I could get back there, you know? So for me...

GROSS: And cut off from your language.

PAWLIKOWSKI: From my language as well because I couldn't speak a word of English at the time, you know? I'd just arrived in London. I have - I thought we were going on holiday, and I was very excited because, you know - rock 'n' roll. And I was, you know, full of - I was into Kinks and Small Faces and all sorts of things.

But suddenly, I discover we're not going back, and I can't say goodbye to anyone. I can't speak any English, so I kind of, you know, feel a bit of an idiot. And so that's like - you know, if you talk about real traumas, you know, that was the one. And in a way, "Ida" is an attempt to recover the Poland of my childhood, among many things, you know - just to kind of re- - to evoke the sounds, the images, the faces, the situations from my childhood when I was 5, 7, 10.

GROSS: Ida and her Aunt Wanda go in search of the graves of their family - people murdered by fellow Poles during World War II and murdered because they were Jewish. Finding the graves is very important to them, and I wonder, like, in your life, what do graves, what do cemeteries mean to you? You were forced to leave your country of Poland when you were 14 after your parents divorced and your mother remarried and moved to England and took you with her. So, I mean, if you wanted to visit the graves of family, you weren't even in the country where the cemetery would be.

PAWLIKOWSKI: That's right, yeah. But yeah, the graves are important in my life, I must admit. Strangely, you know, my parents, who left Poland separately and, you know, divorced, ended up marrying other people. But then they met again abroad, and they got together again. And then they died abroad...

GROSS: Wait, wait, they got together and remarried?

PAWLIKOWSKI: ...And they remarried, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, wow, really?

PAWLIKOWSKI: I mean, it's a fantastic, complicated story, which was...

GROSS: (Laughter) That must have been so strange for you.

PAWLIKOWSKI: It was beautiful in a way because they couldn't realize that they, you know - they have much more together in this foreign world, you know? They were a couple who knew each other from when she was 17 and he was 25. And they ended up living together and dying together. So - and they died in Munich, and I remember bringing their coffins back to Poland just after the wall came down - roughly around that time. So I did want to put them back into a graveyard where I can visit them, where my children can visit them, where, you know, my other family was buried. So it's - yes, where you bury people, establishing these sacred places for future visits or pilgrimages, is very important.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, while we're on the subject of graves - you decided to bury your parents in Poland. They worked hard to get out of Poland.

PAWLIKOWSKI: I know, I know, it's quite...

GROSS: Do you know how they would've felt about being taken back there after they died and buried there?

PAWLIKOWSKI: They would've been touched by my heroic - they would have been amused by my heroic efforts because it was so difficult to actually organize it at the time. I don't know. I don't think - well, my father didn't really care where his ashes would be, to be honest. I mean - but I think my mother would have been - would have liked the fact. I can't tell. I mean, I didn't follow their instructions. I just did what felt good and right.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pawel Pawlikowski, who is the director and co-writer of the film, "Ida," which is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is film director and screenwriter Paweł Pawlikowski. And his film, "Ida," is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. It's also nominated for best cinematography.

So your film, "Ida," is set in the aftermath of World War II, shortly after the Stalinist era. You were born in 1957, a little more than 10 years after the war ended. Were there kind of ghosts of war where you grew up in Warsaw? Like, I read someplace that, like, the sewer near your home was a sewer in which people involved in the Warsaw Uprising used to escape. So did you feel, like, surrounded by the ghosts of that past?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, but we didn't make a big deal out of it. But there were, like, bullet holes in my courtyard. And there was a sewer outside which was used during the uprising, you know, for people - for the insurgents to disappear into because the Germans had taken over that area. And all over Warsaw - I mean, Warsaw is kind of one big devastation area, you know? And a quarter of a million people died in that uprising. So - you know, and the whole city was razed to the ground. So there's very little left that's prewar. But there are wounds everywhere, you know? So of course I grew up among that. But it just was the norm. It wasn't - I wasn't constantly taken aback by it, you know? It was just kind of - OK, well, here's a plaque where a hundred people were executed during the - in the early days of the uprising. And yeah - but you sort of grew up with this sense of history. And the strange thing, even now, when you go to Warsaw - it's still full of wounds, history, you know, full of kind of empty spaces where once was the ghetto, for example, or the Umschlagplatz. And, you know, so you're constantly aware of history without having to talk about it, you know. It's just there.

GROSS: You shot your film, "Ida," in black and white. And I'm wondering if that's because the documentation of the past was in black and white. Like, old photos are in black and white. You know, movies of, you know, the '40s and a lot of the movies of the '50s were in black and white. Do you associate that era in film and photographs with black and white?

PAWLIKOWSKI: I do. I do, of course. And I love that cinema, you know, the black and white cinema - even later, you know, even in these days. You know, I love watching old - you know, the Czech New Wave of the early French New Wave, which is all black and white and usually four-by-three format. But yeah, and I remembered that world in black and white. And my photo albums, which I carry with me everywhere I move... I always have, like, 10 photo albums with my family photographs. And from that period, they're all black and white. And they're all in funny formats and strangely framed. And they have a kind of melancholy beauty about them, you know? There's just not many things in the shot. There's, you know, two people, a dog, you know, a lamp post, one car in the distance - that kind of emptier world and more innocent world, where people were not photographed all the time, you know, like nowadays.

GROSS: So I know that when you're shooting a movie, you like to have time as you're shooting to think about what you're doing and to maybe change your ideas or, you know, change some of the dialogue. And what happened during the shooting of "Ida" was that there was a blizzard that prevented you from shooting for a while while you were in the middle of the film. Did you have any revelations, during that period when you couldn't shoot, that changed the course of the film?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Not really. It was more that when I was shooting it, I knew that some of the scenes that were in the schedule and in the script were not great, you know? They were a little bit functional. There was a character whose job was just to give information, which is never a great thing on screen. So I put all these kind of, you know, functional, not-worked-out scenes to the back of the schedule, you know, hoping that at the weekends I could rewrite them, find something else. But I was slightly panicking because, you know, usually, with most of my films, I always get this little break before the last third of filming where I can rewrite quite a bit. In the case of "Ida," because of the budgetary restrictions, we couldn't do that. So when the snows came - and they came much too early - I was relieved, you know? It was a disaster for production, but I knew that I was lucky, you know. I could now do my usual thing and go away. I'd been editing while shooting, anyway - but go away and make sure that all the scenes from now on are really focused and right and expressive. And I kind of knew what they would be by then. But I used the two months we had off because the snow was tremendous. It was the winter of the century. So I used these two months to really kind of hone down the script and find better scenes than those we had originally, find the new locations, re-rehearse some things. And then, the last 10 days of filming, I was just - it was really just kind of getting everything spot on and making the film cohere, you know, in a certain, particular way.

GROSS: The young actress who plays Ida, the young woman who's about to take her vows as a nun, was not really an actress. A director who you knew spotted her in a cafe and for some reason thought she'd be right for your movie (laughter)...


GROSS: Seems like an odd way to cast somebody. But it worked awfully well. What did you make of it when a friend called you and said, yeah, I noticed this person in a cafe that'd be great for your film? Why did you even take that seriously?

PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, no because it didn't quite work like that. It was, like, after four months of looking, I couldn't find an actress I could believe in to play Ida because Ida is so particular and unique and timeless and strange. So none of the, you know, like, 400 young actresses or drama students that I met were that. You know, I just didn't believe in them. So I told all my friends in Warsaw, keep looking for me please because I'm a bit - I've got a knife on my throat. You know, and we have to start filming soon. And so, you know, so I kept getting, you know, phone calls from various people. And then one day, this friend of mine, who's a neighbor of mine, in fact, you know, texted me - I was actually in Paris at the time - and said, you know, there is a girl sitting across from me in the cafe, reading a book. And she looks interesting. I don't know what you're looking for, but she looks interesting. Then I asked my friend to take a secret photograph on her iPhone and send it to me, which my friend did. And the girl in question didn't look anything like a nun. She had a lot of, you know, like, really cool clothes and makeup. But there was something interesting about her. So I asked to meet her via the barman in that cafe because she'd left the cafe by then. And when I met her and asked her to take off her makeup and stuff, you know, suddenly, I saw that, you know, she's kind of perfect for Ida, especially when I started talking to her and realized what an interesting, strong, grounded character she was. She was - she was Ida, you know. And the most beautiful thing was that she didn't want to act. She had absolutely no desire to be an actress. And the only reason she came to see me is because she loved one of my films. "My Summer Of Love" was, like, an important film in her youth. So she agreed to meet me because she was curious. And then I had, you know - then I had to try and convince her to be in this film. So I forced her into a couple of, like, scenes - audition scenes - with the other Agata, you know, who plays Wanda. And I realized that she's really quite calm, which was perfect. And then, suddenly, you know, we became friends. She started - she understood that it's not going to be like one of these industrial films where you just kind of shoot it, but that it's going to be a, you know, like, an interesting process that she would be part of. So we drew her in. And the rest was great, you know? She could cope brilliantly under the pressure.

GROSS: So your film, "Ida," is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. What does it mean to you to be nominated now?

PAWLIKOWSKI: It's brilliant. It's wonderful. It's unexpected. It feels very gratifying, you know, because honestly, the idea that, you know, some people make films for Oscars or think in terms of Oscars, whereas this film was just so not meant that way... The fact that it's kind of arrived here, it's one of these wonderful paradoxes in life. And, you know, it's thrilling. I'm really happy.

GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck at the Oscars. And I thank you very much for talking with us.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Pawel Pawlikowski directed and co-wrote the film, "Ida," which is nominated for two Oscars, best foreign language film and best cinematography. "Ida" has played art houses and is now streaming on Netflix. After a break, we'll listen back to an interview with Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent, who was killed last night in a car accident. And Lloyd Schwartz will review reissues of Haydn string quartets. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.