Paweł Pawlikowski’s film can be interpreted on two levels. The first one emphasises the significance of individual choices of all heroes – everyone is responsible for their actions and pays, one way or another, for all harms done.
The other points to the historical context and the role of history, the workings of which can destroy people.
The historical background introduced in the film concerns the relations between Poles and Jews and their entanglement in the history of both wartime and post-war fate of Poland.
References to the time of the German occupation
A significant role is played by the issue of Poles giving shelter to Jews. Rescuing Jews from concentration camps or being murdered by the Gestapo entailed great risk to Poles. In many cases, their most important motivation was an intention to save another human being, even at the cost of their life. A neighbour would help a neighbour (father) but the film also reveals that some Poles were responsible for crimes against Jews (son) and attempted to take over their property.
The attitude and motivation of both father and son remain unexplained in the film.
In this context, you can also analyse the fate of Ida, who was given to the care of nuns as a baby. Adoption of Jewish children by Polish families and, much more frequently, taking them in by orphanages (children’s homes), usually run by religious congregations, were typical during the II World War. We don’t know any statistics that would allow to express these phenomena in numbers as a whole. Children were baptised, taught prayers and Catholic gestures, but this was mostly made in order to hide and protect them from the Nazi invaders more efficiently. Thanks to such “conversions”, thousands of lives were saved, although there are opinions that the aim of these adoptions was forced Christianisation.
Pawlikowski shows the role of Jews in the fight during the war, however, we are not sure what fight Wanda means; whether she fought against Germans or together with the Red Army, which liberated Poland from the Nazi occupation, at the same time trying to gain influence, which after the war resulted in the establishment of the socialist regime.
References to the Stalinist era
Even though the film takes place in 1962, Pawlikowski refers to the time of the communist terror in Poland. In 1944-1954, the percentage of people of Jewish origin in the structures of Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (UB), which was the political police of the totalitarian communist system, was about 30%.
Ida’s aunt was called Bloody Wanda. This character was based on prosecutor Helena Wolińska who came from a Jewish family. She took part in political trials during the Stalinist era. Unlike her fictional counterpart, she lived for nearly 90 years and died by natural causes in the United Kingdom.
The authorities of democratic Poland made long and futile efforts to get her extradited as part of criminal prosecution. She was accused of false imprisonment of 24 soldiers of the Home Army, which included sentencing General August Emil Fieldorf “Nil” to death based on fake documents.
Jazz in the spotlight
“Ida” also includes references to lighter historical issues. One of them is the position of jazz music, which fascinates the young novice Anna (Ida) and is embodied by the character of a handsome saxophonist played by Dawid Ogrodnik. In the first half of the 1950s, before the political thaw of October 1956, such music was really frowned
upon by the authorities, who were trying to limit its popularity. From the point of view of the communist
doctrinaires, it was a plague coming from the West, a cultural threat degenerating healthy Socialist youth. Jazz (also because of the role of improvisation) was associated with freedom.