Ida is a 2013 movie by Paweł Pawlikowski, cinematographed by Łukasz Żal. Set in 1962 Poland, it follows Ida, a young woman who visits her aunt before she takes her vows as a catholic nun. The visit, however, unearths her Jewish past and the life and eventual death of her parents under Nazi occupation.
Being the first time she stepped out of her convent, Ida is forced to reckon with the ‘sins’ of the world embodied by her Aunt — from smoking, sex and partying to questioning the existence of god.
It’s tempting to think that there is always a positive linear relationship between the complexity of an issue and the amount of words or frames needed to express or describe it.
However, given the scale of the universe and the erratic, unsystematic ways it tangles and untangles in itself, there are space-time blocks whose weight and complexity transcend what can be conveyed through the normal ways of communication.
For instance, how does one best encapsulate the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland where 3 million Jews were killed? Would you write about each of their stories, the empty buildings and barren landscapes? Or perhaps creatively visualize data — the number of deaths, hospitalizations and the net economic loss?
For one, its logistically impossible to cover everyone and everything, and even if it were possible to do so, the output would be too tedious to understand and empathize with. Moreover, by covering everything comprehensively, one risks drawing too much attention to the details and underplaying the larger picture.
The output then, if its sole goal is to encapsulate the space-time block, must be a piece of art that gives a direction, a vibe of the times that can be extrapolated by the audience to the entire block.
This is what Ida does. Ida has no statistics of the war. There’s no dialogues that convey what it is to live in post war Poland. There’s little wailing and crying. However, it achieves to powerfully convey the eeriness and emptiness of 1960s Poland through its minimalist visuals.
Ida is entirely shot in 4:3 B&W, almost entirely with deep focus (i.e., every object in the frame is in focus). Camera movement is minimal and unlike other movies with static frames, characters do not move a lot to compensate. Ida feels like is a series of seamlessly moving photographs.
The Poland in the movie feels like a desolate island of calm where everything and everyone are being held back by their past. The past is well known but hardly acknowledged.
This is visually emphasized by the use of negative space, for instance, in the shot below where Ida is visually trapped as a result of being placed in the left third of the frame even though she is being spoken to by someone sitting in front of her.
Artefacts, anecdotes and people from the past seem to be hidden away in the dark, quite literally like in the shot below.
Entire cities are in ruins and although never acknowledged directly, the past always seems to be looming over their heads and crushing down on people like in the shot below.
Characters never feel like they have agency and are quite literally almost always on the margins, merely reacting to how the past unfolds.
The loneliness of post-war life, especially for those who lost their relatives to the war is emphasized further through indoor cinematography with characters dominated and cornered by spaces they built.
Characters are insignificant, tiny dots on large empty landscapes.
However, once in a while a shot come along that links and traps a person in the memories and experiences of the past.
Minimalism is certainly not always be the most prudent philosophy for creating virtual worlds, depicting the actual WWII for instance, might warrant a maximalist cinematography to depict the gore and the adrenaline rush of the times.
However, as Ida shows, one of the ways to encapsulate a space-time block, especially the dystopian and lonely ones, is to just strip it down to its bare essence. In the age of blazing fast cuts, shallow focus, pop colors and general information overload, Ida reminds us that the essence of a virtual world is conveyed not just through what and how much is in the frame, but also how objects are framed.
Sometimes, the lesser the objects in the frame, and the more off-center they are placed, the more meaningful the frame is.