Pawel Pawlikowski left his native Poland as a teen, at the start of the 1970s. He eventually settled in Britain, where he went on to direct award-winning documentaries and features such as "My Summer of Love." So one will excuse him if his vision of Poland is idiosyncratic.
"I remember it in black and white, or I imagine it in black and white," he says of choosing to shoot his foreign-language Oscar nominee, "Ida," without color and in the antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio (the shape of a 1950s TV screen). "I didn't want to do a superficially realistic film; I wanted it to be a meditation."
"Ida's" director and co-writer often invokes simplicity in describing how the film was made, including the use of a static camera and the lack of a musical score, but the movie itself is complex. Ida is an orphan and novitiate nun in the early 1960s who discovers just before she is to take her vows that her parentage is Jewish. She is accompanied on her quest to learn her family's fate by her only known relative, the hard-living, Stalinist official Wanda, who has deep issues of her own to confront.
Pawlikowski says he had wrestled with the character of Ida for years, always unsatisfied with the story she evoked — "too plotty," he says — until he matched her with Wanda, based on a real person he met in Britain.
He calls the actual woman "very nice and bright and kind and witty, an old lady; she had been in her youth a radical Marxist and a Stalinist state prosecutor. She was in charge of political show trials and actually caused the death of innocent people. Then when I put this character of Wanda together with the character of Ida, suddenly there was this very dense psychological story. Two very different characters, two believers of sorts. And suddenly I had the engine.
"But also it's about Poland, my childhood, my thoughts on religion. One of the impulses was to bring [that time] to life … because I no longer know what was imagined and what was real."
He recruited longtime collaborator Ryszard Lenczewski to shoot it. Lenczewski did much to help craft the film's look but had essential disagreements with Pawlikowski. The auteur, for instance, wanted to experiment with framing that responded to the 4:3 aspect ratio by using an unusual amount of head space — negative space above the subject.
The cinematographer fell ill very soon after shooting began and bowed out. The director eventually turned to the 28-year-old camera operator, Lukasz Zal, to take on his first assignment as director of photography on a feature. The cinematographers now share an Oscar nomination.
"When Lukasz came, he was very brave because he had no reputation to protect," says Pawlikowski with a laugh. "We kept going further [with the vertical framing] to the point where it was so extreme we didn't know if people would accept it. Lukasz was still young and had this devil-may-care energy."
By email, Zal says, "Working with Pawel was a very positive, inspiring and creative process. … Pawel is incredibly conscious of the pictures."
Indeed, Pawlikowski's stated intent was to make a "photographic" film, one in which the camera almost never moves.
"We saw that [the odd framing] created the feeling of loss, isolation and that it wasn't just a strange mannerism but it conveyed so much more," says Zal.
"I very much like the scene when [Ida] talks to the Christ," he adds. "Moonlit night, the figure of Christ in the fountain, field in the background. I dreamed that shot, and I shot it exactly like I imagined it. … I was able to use natural sources of light, like candles."
The effect of the vertical framing varies, as the convent's large, enclosed spaces can seem oppressive with so small a figure in frame, and the countryside can feel wide open as Ida and Wanda trek through it.
Or it can be interpreted in just the reverse.
"Some audiences have said the sky was crushing them," Pawlikowski says. "When you do something that's formally strong, it elicits all kinds of responses. When you make these decisions, they're kind of intuitive. You don't intellectualize what it means; it feels right."