Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Night and Fog, another great film about the Holocaust, warns of the danger in treating the Shoah as a one-time event buried safely in the past, perpetuated by evildoers who were fundamentally different than our presumably humane and civilized selves. “Are their faces really different from our own?” its narrator asks. Ida uses an investigation into the annihilation of a fictional Jewish family in Poland to pose the same question, contemplating the horrible helplessness of the ordinary citizens caught in the maws of the Nazis’ murderous totalitarianism. With minimal dialogue, luminous black and white cinematography and penetrating performances by open-faced Agata Trzebuchowska as the contemplative title character and sharp-faced Agata Kulesza as her gallant but cynical aunt Wanda, PaweĊ‚ Pawlikowski's quietly devastating film limns one family’s losses with delicate precision.

The unearthing of an unmarked grave is almost unbearably sad, not least because Ida and Wanda bear it with their customary stoicism, their dry eyes and dignified bearing reminding us of the depth of the losses they’ve been living with—and shaped by—for more than two decades (the film is set in the ‘60s). Ida makes the lives of the family at the center of its story tangible and their deaths tragic, rejecting both the sentimentalized kitsch and the faceless victimhood to which Holocaust fiction so often assigns its characters. But what makes this movie truly great is its empathy for the family’s Polish neighbors. In a pitiless system like the Nazi occupation, Ida reminds us, perpetrators can be victims too, compelled to make terrible choices that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Written for Slant Magazine

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