Lodz, the Polish city in which Pawel Pawlikowski has set his latest film, “Ida,” has a long and checkered past in both Polish and Jewish history. It is, Pawlikowski says, “a peculiar place.”
It is late winter and the filmmaker is sitting in the green room at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center just before a screening of the film, a subtle and intense gem that opened theatrically last week.
What, one asks, makes Lodz peculiar?
“The city used to be all about textiles,” he says, unwinding his lanky frame and leaning into the sentence. “It emerged out of nothing in the 19th century and became known as the Manchester of the Russian Empire. In the last 20 years, since the fall of Communism, it has known nothing but hard times. It was bypassed by the wave of economic development of the period. So it’s a melancholy place, but with a great beauty.”
Ironically, Lodz is also famous as the home of Poland’s leading film school and, as the director notes, “it used to be the center of the [Polish] film industry, so it’s very cheap to make a film there.” It also was a city with a large Jewish population and the site of one of the most notorious of the Nazi ghettos in occupied Poland.
Pawlikowski was born in Poland in 1957 but he didn’t attend the film school in Lodz. At 14 he left the country and worked his way across Europe, eventually ending up in the United Kingdom, where he would launch a highly successful film career. After developing a reputation as a gifted documentarian at the BBC, he broke into theatrical films with two excellent British features, “Last Resort” (2000) and “My Summer of Love” (2004).
He was on the verge of a major career breakthrough in 2006, having shot more than half of an adaptation of Magnus Mills’ “The Restraint of Beasts,” when he was forced to withdraw from the project by his wife’s serious illness and eventual death. It was a terrible setback and it would be five years before he made another film, the Paris-set “The Woman in the Fifth.”
Now he has returned to Poland, apparently to stay. “Ida,” which has earned awards at festivals in Toronto, London, Warsaw and Gijón, is his first film made in his native country; it is a somber but exquisite meditation on family, history and memory, shot in an evocative, misty black-and-white by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski.
The film is set in the early 1960s, which made Lodz, a city forgotten by the passing of historical time, the perfect location. The plot is exceptionally simple, although the emotions if provokes are dauntingly complex. Anna (the luminous newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun who will take her final vows in a matter of days. What she doesn’t know is that her only surviving relative, a distant aunt, is about to overturn all the certainties in her life by revealing that she was a hidden child named Ida Lebenstein, the Jewish daughter of a woman who died in the camps. Wanda, her aunt (Agata Kulesza), is a magistrate, at least superficially at ease in the middle ranks of the Communist regime; in reality, she is a self-loathing alcoholic with few certainties of her own. The pair will journey across rural Poland seeking the burial place of Anna/Ida’s mother, Wanda’s sister.
“I started with the idea of a nun who discovers her [Jewish] roots,” Pawlikowski says. “I wrote it on autopilot; I wasn’t even sure I’d make the film.”
When the chance to film the story came along a few years later, he realized that the original script “was nowhere near a piece of cinema I’d like to make.” He continued working with co-author
Rebecca Lenkiewicz during the filming process, to strip ancillary plotlines and added the character of the aunt. That process, the result of his background in documentary, is typical for him, he says.
“In documentary, I had to live my films,” he explains. “Things shift slightly all the time. The writing [process] never stops. And I work the same way on [fiction] features. You look at the rushes and you say, ‘I need a little more.’ The structure is what it is, but the details change.”
The heart of the film, though, is its visual style — the extraordinary range of shades of gray the two cameramen find, Pawlikowski’s choice of stationary camera, off-center framing in almost every shot, and the enforced claustrophobia of his decision to shoot in the old Academy ratio, the squarish 1:33-1 frame of pre-WWII cinema.
He is offhand about the look of the film, which is like Babe Ruth saying he doesn’t care about home runs. “That’s how I remember that time,” Pawlikowski says. “You look at old family albums, search your memory. Not moving the camera might have been a bit risky, but it helped to suggest things [off-screen].”
On the other hand, when I point out the resolutely asymmetrical framing that runs through the film’s 80 minutes, he is pleased. “You’re supposed to be on edge,” he says. “The gaze is steady in fixed contemplation. At some point in camera rehearsals we tried tilting the camera in wide shots as a way of making it more interesting.”
The film’s soundtrack is no less evocative, an amalgam of period Polish pop tunes and smoky, moody jazz, with John Coltrane’s ballad “Naima” as the centerpiece.
“I put in all my favorite music,” Pawlikowski admits. “The pop songs are the ones I grew up with as a kid. I love Coltrane and I chose ‘Naima’ because I needed a piece of music that would envelope [Anna].”
Although “Ida” is every bit as unblinking in its revelations of the dark underside of the Polish-Jewish collision under the Nazi occupation and its brutal aftermath, Pawlikowski has experienced little of the nasty blowback that attended the release of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” last year. The star of that film received death threats from right-wing Polish “patriots.”
“We got some flak, but nothing like that,” Pawlikowski says. “I think that may be because I tried to steer clear of making a film about an issue. You lay yourself open to an accusation that you’re being crude [artistically]. I don’t believe [you need] evil characters to make a film. I think ‘Ida’ has a more general sense of tragedy.”
Pawlikowski says that since the fall of the Stalinist regime the issues around Jewish-Polish relations have “been more out in the open.”
He adds, “It’s been a battlefield, but it’s a healthy debate.”
And now he has contributed an elegant, eloquent statement to the proceedings.
“Ida,” directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is playing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.,  727-8110, filmforum.org) and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway,  757-0359, lincolnplazacinema.com.)