If Sunday night’s Oscars are any indication, Western audiences and critics are fascinated with eastern Europe: Three out of five movies nominated for best foreign-language film were from the region, and Wes Anderson’s “Hotel Grand Budapest,” which competed for best film but only won in a couple of second-rate categories, was set in a fictional eastern European country called Zubrowka (a real word that means herb-infused vodka).
One can only hope Westerners don’t limit themselves to the movies and delve deeper into the region’s tangled past and often tragic present.
It’s no accident that both Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” the Polish film that ended up winning the best foreign-language film Oscar, and its strongest rival, Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” have been reviled in their home countries as anti-Polish and anti-Russian, respectively. Despite eastern Europe’s formidable cinematic tradition, the region hasn’t been pampered with much box-office or festival success in recent years. So every movie that wins awards at major festivals – and both “Ida” and “Leviathan” did, before coming to the Oscars – is seen as representing the country that produced it.
The problem with that is few people can agree on how they want foreigners to see their homeland.
“Ida” is a particularly complicated case. One of the two main characters, Wanda, is loosely based on Helena Wolinska-Brus, the Stalinist prosecutor in the show trials of the early 1950s. Pawlikowski met her in Oxford in the 1980s. In the film Wanda, a judge and a former show-trial prosecutor, takes her niece, Anna, a novice Catholic nun, on a trip to the countryside to discover how their Jewish family died during World War II. It turns out a Polish peasant killed the mother and father of Anna, then just a baby named Ida, to take over their house and plot of land.
Everything about that set-up sounds wrong to somebody. On a radio show, columnist and TV host Roman Kurkiewicz accused the film of reviving old Polish anti-Semitic cliches and trivializing the Holocaust: “One can be a good Jewish woman if one’s a Catholic nun.” And then, of course, there’s Wanda the Jewish Communist, her hands dripping with innocent Polish blood.
On the other hand, doesn’t the movie exaggerate Polish anti-Semitism?
“This is the first film of this caliber and class that has the Holocaust but no Germans,” Janusz Wojciechowski, a Polish member of the European parliament, wrote on Wpolitice.pl. “It was not the SS or the chivalrous Wehrmacht that killed Jews, it was the evil, vile, primitive, dirty, greedy and stupid Polish peasant.”
A nationalist foundation, called the Reduta Dobrego Imenia (Good Name Rampart), circulated a petition against “Ida,” saying it slandered the Poles who risked their lives to help Jews during the German occupation.
Apart from the criticism both from the left and from the right, there were the inevitable accusations of cynical oversimplification for export – the kind that also plagued “Leviathan.” According to movie critic Wieslaw Kot, “Ida’s” festival victories “mean we must simplify our history, cut it up roughly, frame it and format it for the Western spectator.”
Pawlikowski has acted irritated at the political criticism, opining that it had to do with the approaching parliamentary election in Poland. “When it was just a small arthouse movie, people would just go see it and engage with it on its level,” the director told The Atlantic in an interview. “Now it’s become a big political thing, because that’s what Oscar buzz does to people’s brains.” To me, that sounds a bit disingenuous: Pawlikowski has spent most of his life outside Poland, and he could have avoided his country’s recent history as a subject if he wanted to stay politically neutral. In fact, “Ida” is his first movie set entirely in Poland, and in an era likely to give rise painful memories – the early 1960s, when the country was thoroughly Sovietized.
One could attribute “Ida’s” victory to its pristine cinematography, the subdued passion that permeates the gloomy, highly stylized movie. Yet this year, when Russia’s attack on Ukraine has brought the 20th century back onto newspaper pages, the subject matter must have been a factor, too. It’s interesting, however, that “Ida” was picked over “Leviathan”, which depicts the despair of those forced to battle Russia’s modern-day corrupt bureaucracy, and the Georgian-Estonian entry, “Tangerines,” which recalls the 1992 civil war in Abkhazia.
Sophisticated Western spectators clearly have an interest in artistic depictions of the cultural and historic background of today’s crises, in glimpsing the roots of what went wrong. They only seem prepared to reward, however, the more philosophical, more distant reflections of this cultural and historical context. The Holocaust and the Stalinist purges are familiar ground by now. Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, now a major proponent of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy, won an Oscar in 1994 for an anti-Stalin movie, “Burnt by the Sun.” “Ida,” for all its visual perfection, doesn’t stray from that well-covered territory.
Today’s tragedies are deeply rooted in the 20th century, and the reactions to “Ida” in Poland are the best demonstration that that bloody era is far from buried. Yet, for those trying to figure out how present events in eastern Europe affect their lives, it’s more relevant to consider how those earlier times have morphed into the present – the Stalinist repression machine into President Vladimir Putin’s leaden, ruthless system; the secondary episodes of World War II into the Yugoslav and post-Soviet regional wars.
If you liked “Ida,” watch the other two eastern European contenders for this year’s foreign-language Oscar. It may not always be pleasant viewing, and the depictions of Russia, Poland and Georgia at their worst may often seem simplistic, but that doesn’t matter. I can almost guarantee that after seeing all three films, you'll feel an emotional impulse to do some background reading. And then, the news coming out of those former communist countries will start making more sense.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.