Pawel Pawlikowki’s Cold War took the film world by storm last year, scoring three Oscar nominations and an Amazon Studios distribution deal. The film is deeply, passionately moving from its first black-and-white frame to its last, making it all the more surprising that it’s not the director’s most heartbreaking feature. That distinction belongs to his 2013 film Ida, winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, which tells the story of a young nun in the 1960’s, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who meets a long-lost aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and learns that she was born with the name Ida to Jewish parents who were killed during World War 2. The film follows both women on their emotional journey through Poland to discover the truth about their family, then traces the aftermath of their discoveries.
Although the film is truly a masterpiece in every way, Ida is perhaps most notable for its use of editing to suture us, the spectators, into Ida and Wanda’s grief. The film uses few other modern cinematic conventions: it is shot in black-and-white with a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio and is almost entirely devoid of non-diegetic sound. The camera is frequently static, holding on a long take rather than tracking or panning to follow characters as they move throughout the landscape. While it’s no great secret that editing is crucial to cinema, Ida uses montages in place of other cinematic tricks, building a cinematic atmosphere of deep grief and sorrow.
Editing is Everything
The film begins its work by isolating us from Ida and Wanda during a long take of their first meeting. The right half of the frame is in shadow; Ida in her novitiate garb is the only clearly illuminated object. But the camera holds still an uncomfortable distance from her, the sharp, black outline of a railing dominating the foreground of the shot and almost bisecting her body. She turns her back to the camera to knock on Wanda’s door, her wimple concealing even the back of her head from the spectator. When Wanda opens the door, her body too is almost entirely concealed behind the railing.
A typical narrative drama would shoot this scene in shot/reverse shot: a close-up of one woman as she speaks, then a cut to a close-up of the other. But this film instead keeps us far away, not yet letting us begin to identify with either woman. This style continues when Ida and Anna move inside the apartment and begin talking: Wanda is shot speaking but the camera holds on her as Ida responds, denying the reverse shot that frequently structures cinematic conversation. We’re left outside of their conversation in a situation where editing would normally suture us in.
We are eventually sutured into the film but only at the moment at which mourning enters the narrative. When Wanda says “you’re a Jew,” we’re finally given a reverse shot of Ida as she learns about her past. Wanda walks out of the frame and returns with a photograph that she sets in front of Ida. The film then cuts to an eye-line match, showing us the image of Ida’s mother, but more importantly beginning the work of suture. We’re finally being brought into the narrative at the moment in which Wanda’s sorrow at the loss of her sister – and, as we later learn, her own son – becomes evident, which is also the moment in which Ida learns she has reason to grieve.
It’s no accident that these events occur simultaneously. Theorist Kaja Silverman writes in The Subject of Semiotics that “the match of subject and cinematic discourse occurs not just at the level of the shot, but at that of the story” (220). Films are created by montage, the combination of extended shots and the cuts that order them, in order to tell a certain type of story. Many films use editing techniques such as shot/reverse shot to establish a relationship between characters, or a flashback to add emotional depth to a character’s past. Ida rejects these structures of typical montage until mourning enters the story, thus immersing us immediately in the characters’ grief.
This structure reappears throughout the film, particularly in an intense sequence marking the emotional climax of the film. After a journey across the Polish countryside, Ida and Wanda have finally convinced a farmer to bring them to the graves of their family. The sequence begins with an extremely long shot of the trio walking across a field into a dark forest. The camera moves closer via cuts instead of zoom: a medium shot of the trio moving through the woods is followed by a brief shot/reverse shot sequence of the farmer digging at the grave-site, reinstating the suture right before the saddest moment of the whole film.
When the farmer is done digging, Ida stands. The camera then cuts to a shot initially showing the middle third of Ida and Wanda’s bodies before Wanda falls to her knees, her face a mask of grief. A rare moment of sorrowful non-diegetic music offers a sound bridge as she removes her gloves and begins to take off her scarf; the camera then cuts to the farmer who sits at the bottom of the newly unearthed grave, weeping. The camera cuts back to Wanda, now holding her son’s skull in her arms. She wraps her scarf around the skull and rises unsteadily to her feet before walking into soft focus in the background. The camera then cuts to a short sequence in which the farmer confesses that he killed Ida’s parents and Wanda’s son; Ida gathers her parents’ bones and walks away. The film then cuts to an establishing shot of Wanda’s car in an empty parking lot followed by a close-up of Wanda’s once again expressionless face.
Portraying Grief On & Off-Screen
Although what we see on the screen is deeply moving, the most heart-wrenching parts of the sequence occur off-screen. Wanda’s retrieval of her son’s skull is elided: she is without him, her narrative presence constituted by his absence, and then after a cut she has him again and exits the frame. In the woods her face is the very image of grief: in the car she is not affected. Neither woman is shown walking from the grave to the car: they are in the woods and then they are in the car, the bones of their relatives out of frame. While the montage of the beginning of the sequence and the musical sound bridge served to tighten the suture, we don’t see Ida and Wanda’s most heightened moments of abject anguish.
Even though these moments aren’t shown, we’re still deeply moved during the scene due to our being sutured into the women’s mourning. Mourning is located in the same formal space that we are; grief is the suture. We are drawn to the space where grief runs deepest, where mourning defies cinematic representation. Ida and Wanda’s pain exceeds the realm of the visible or the performative and can only be expressed via absence, which we experience through montage.
This radical use of editing to represent pain offers a far more emotional viewing experience than we usually find in cinema. While techniques such as shot/reverse shot or flashbacks can sometimes be effective, their overuse can make us emotionally immune to them. Ida presents grief through absence and isolation instead of representation, a film-making choice that makes this film one of the saddest I have ever seen. Pawlikowski, as well as cinematographer Lukasz Zal and editor Jaroslaw Kaminiski, deserve every recognition possible for their specific use of montage to tell this deeply moving story in a way that heightens the pain of the narrative and makes this film nothing short of a masterpiece.
Ida is available to stream for free on Kanopy with a participating library or university membership.
Citation from Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, published by Oxford University Press, 1983.