The past is not a static moment frozen in time – it is an echo that reverberates from the cavernous recesses of history, resounding in the present and sustaining into the future. The past lives in our DNA, imprinted on our minds and our memories; in our brains and in our bones. In the words of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, “The body keeps the score.” Coming to terms with the past means acknowledging that it’s still alive in the present, impacting and influencing us in ways both subtle and overt. The Shoah is an event that many wish to relegate to history, but this is futile – as we see viscerally portrayed in the Polish films Ida and Pokłosie, the pain and trauma from the past endure in the present.
The lifeblood of both films is identity – Poles, Christians, Jews, victims, survivors, murderers, and the silently complicit. Awareness and acknowledgment of history and how it shaped and continues to shape us is a way of coming to terms with the past. The Polish perception of World War II and the Holocaust is “competing narratives of persecution” – the murder of three million Jews (90% of the country’s pre-war Jewish population) is seen by their survivors and descendants as “evidence of Polish complicity” but Christian Poles see it as “shared sacrifice” since an equal number of Gentiles also perished. (Stier)
Ida (a stunning black-and-white drama set in 1962) and Pokłosie (a tightly framed mystery-thriller set in 2001) take place in Poland and focus on the dichotomous perspectives and experiences of the Shoah. Both films revolve around secrets, shame, and the conflict between those who wish to uncover and honor the past and those who want to keep it buried and silent.
The dismissal of history with such attitudes as “What happened happened.” (Ida) and “They’re gone now, what’s the use of talking?” (Pokłosie) is gaslighting, and has infiltrated the national consciousness in post-war Poland. This attitude is prevalent and pervasive among non-Jewish Poles throughout both films, and there is emotionally-charged resistance to those wanting to bring the truth of the past into the light of the present.
While both films focus on reckoning with the past, they also share the core theme of family. Ida explores the relationship between the title character, a pious Catholic orphan about to become a nun, and her brazen Aunt Wanda. Ida learns she is actually Jewish, which is an existential shock to her self-identity. The two very different women experience tense situations that come to a head one night when a drunken Wanda taunts Ida, “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint… this Jesus of yours adored people like me.”
Pokłosie unpacks the resentment between brothers Józef and Franciszek – the former who never left Poland and still farms their family’s land and the latter who just returned from 20 years in Chicago. Similar to Ida, there is pervasive smoking and drinking throughout this film – addictive rituals that aim to distract, distance, and numb the characters from their emotions and the bleak reality of their circumstances and surroundings.
Both pairs of relatives embark on quests to discover the truth about their respective families and in doing so raise the dead, both figuratively and literally. The paths of destiny for the Lebensteins in Ida and the Kalinas in Pokłosie lead them into the Polish woods – a place fraught with darkness, mystery, and violence; haunted by the ghosts of the past. Ida and Wanda unearth the remains of Ida’s parents and Wanda’s young son, murdered by the same (Christian) man who hid them from the Nazis during the war.
Based on an actual event in the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, Franciszek and Józef Kalina have a different but equally horrifying discovery – the remains of Jewish villagers on the grounds of their family’s charred cottage, along with the damning revelation that their father was instrumental in starting the fire, as their complicit (Christian) neighbors drank, laughed, and proclaimed “That’s for Jesus on the cross!” The Kalina brothers also discovered that their father and the other villagers then commandeered the farmland of the Jewish neighbors they murdered.
There was great importance placed in both films on the desire to validate the humanity of the Jewish victims, as the Lebensteins and the Kalinas take care with the skulls and bones they unearth and intend to properly bury the remains. In Pokłosie, Józef had even been salvaging Jewish headstones that were repurposed in the village, placing them in his farm for safety. When Franciszek incredulously asked him why he’d been doing this, Józef replied “I had to, they were human beings.” This had been provoking the wrath of their neighbors, who in turn harassed the brothers, defaced their home with anti-Semitic grafitti, and set their wheat field on fire. Pokłosie culminates with the villagers taking ruthless vengeance on the brothers for prying into the past and exposing their sinful crimes – they crucified Józef on his barn door. Ida also ends in death, as a grief-stricken Wanda commits suicide.
Compared to other Holocaust films, particularly trope-laden Hollywood blockbusters, Ida and Pokłosie are unique in their approach to coming to terms with the past and reflecting the relevance of the Shoah in present-day. Both stories focus on the lasting impacts of denial, shame, and trauma and how they shape national, cultural, familial, and personal identities. Both films also explore the polarizing conflict between self-justification and silence and the desire for justice and truth, as well as the opposing forces of anger and hate; grief and love. These films also portray the ongoing anti-Semitism that is passed down generationally in families and communities – and, some might say, in societal attitudes. To this day, decades after the years that Ida and Pokłosie take place, we continue to see an attempt to refute, suppress, and retell history in political rhetoric, school curriculum, and across the Internet – proposing, for example, that the Holocaust didn’t really happen or that we should consider the event from the perspective of the Nazis. The title Pokłosie means “aftermath” – both this film and Ida illustrate in gripping, authentic ways the ever-present reality and relevance of the legacy of the Shoah that will endure in the minds, bodies, and collective consciousness of humans for all time.