Pawel Pawlikowski tells Jeremy Kay about exploring the Poland of his childhood in Ida, and why he wanted to portray universal themes of faith and identity within the context of a very personal journey

Pawel Pawlikowski

Pawel Pawlikowski says he has no masterplan. The film-maker created Ida, his acclaimed story of a young nun’s coming of age in post-war Poland, in response to where he was in life.

“Life is full of zig-zags,” says Pawlikowski, who has returned to live in his native Warsaw after a lifetime studying, working and living mostly in the UK by way of Germany, Italy and France.

“I used to love making documentaries in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and then I made fiction films that are more about love and death and stuff,” he says. “And now I’m going back in time [and making a film] about faith and identity, and the Poland of my childhood.”

Ida is the first film Pawlikowski has shot in Poland and the story is infused with nostalgia for his homeland’s complicated recent history.

Impeccable performances by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska and veteran Agata Kulesza allied to bleakly beautiful vistas have positioned the Polish foreign-language Oscar submission as an awards front runner. It has been hailed a masterpiece but Pawlikowski prefers not to dwell on the accolades. He speaks gently and with an accent, and his eyes often shine through his tinted glasses.

“I have always been attached to Poland, for better or worse,” he says. “Sometimes I’m proud of it, sometimes embarrassed, but I’ve always felt Polish.

“I never had a hook on it. I didn’t live there for most of my life, so it took time to find my way in. [Ida] is not just about Poland; it’s more about universal things that can be best expressed in Poland, strangely. It’s a fascinating time and place that I’ve chosen.”

Pawlikowski co-wrote Ida with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. “We needed a script to get financing,” he says. “If I’d had my own way, I would have worked with 20 pages — like I’ve done with other things — but nowadays in order to get financing you need 90 pages of script.

“So we wrote it and rewrote it. It was my world and she was a very good partner. We finally arrived at 64 pages and went to financiers, and I knew we would change half of it anyway in the process. The screenwriting never stops.”

Pawlikowski filmed from November 2012 to July 2013 in this way: writing and directing blurred together, defying “industrialised” Hollywood’s rules of separate functions.

“I steer clear of that,” says the director, whose credits include My Summer Of Love and The Woman In The Fifth.

“I’ve never been tempted by the American system. I like to do things my way, which is a little bit amateurish maybe, but the only thing that matters in the end is what’s on the screen. How you get there is nobody’s business.

“What’s funny is that people say how beautifully wrought [Ida] is, but the way I got there was quite roundabout.”

Change of tack

When a three-month storm halted production, Trzebuchowska, whom the director had discovered in a café and describes as “completely atheist… principled and coherent”, went back to university.

Pawlikowski used the break to rewrite the script. “I got it exactly the way I wanted it in the end,” he says. Yet concise description of what he has created eludes the fim-maker.

At the behest of her aunt Wanda, a former Stalinist state prosecutor, trainee nun Ida is thrust into an examination of interior and exterior realms that are forbidding yet alive with promise. “I love that world,” says Pawlikowski of Poland in the 1960s, the time of the film and his childhood.

“I have a nostalgia for that world. Haunted they may be, but everyone is haunted by their past if they have lived fully and not just some kind of pretend life.

“It’s a big nostalgia trip. It was an escape from the world of too much — of too much noise, too much colour, everything… Each shot was very personal, very emotional and a lot of them had something to do with my childhood.”

Scenes of monochrome life in a convent give way to comical interactions with Wanda and sequences that pay rich homage to the director’s beloved jazz.

His intuition guided him. Shooting in black and white, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, just happened. “It wasn’t an intellectual decision. It felt right. I wanted to make it like a meditation on something; take it away from the present, from reality, which is in colour.”

The theme of Nazi collaboration elicits strong responses from audience members, yet Pawlikowski insists he was not being didactic. “History’s full of different versions of human behaviour and a lot of horrible things happened and a lot of courageous things happened, but the film’s not really about that; it’s about universal timeless things.

“I tried to make a film set in a historical time without being historical — a film that doesn’t try to explain, that’s not rhetorical.

“It’s not a film against Poland or for Poland; it’s not against anything. It has very specific characters who are complicated. It deals with personal stuff.”