Feature image: Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014.)
For a while it seemed that Cold War cleavages were the last heydays of state approved art consumption. But a European-wide renaissance of nationalism is currently giving propaganda rhetoric an unexpected comeback. Indeed, chauvinistic governments and creepy nationalist movements have rediscovered cinema as an essential mouthpiece for their cause and, in the case of criticism, threat to their national self-respect. While cinema has always also been a question of cultural diplomacy, two recent incidences of national outrage against films that have been almost unanimously praised by international festivals, critics, and cinephiles – Poland’s Ida (2013) and Russia’s Leviathan (2014) – have been accused at home for besmirching national reputation. These films do not adequately represent the countries of their makers, critics say, feeling especially betrayed by the praise they receive in the West. Success abroad means cultural desertion, criticism patriotic treason.
Incidentally both Ida and Leviathan started to attract more and more negative attention at home after their Academy Award nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the Oscar apparently being the ultimate fall from grace. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was the first to meet scorn when The Polish Anti-Defamation League (Reduta Dobrego Imienia) launched a petition against the film on January 16, 2015. The RDI includes, among others, members of the Polish intellectual and cultural elite like the Solidarnośćsinger Jan Pietrzak, the historian Andrzej Nowak, and the sociologist and politician Piotr Gliński (Law and Justice). Ida is set in the 1960s and deals, although not exclusively, with the responsibility of ordinary Poles in participating in the Holocaust. Addressed to the state-funded Polish Film Institute, which produced the film, the petitioners claim that the film “fails to acknowledge the German occupation” and “that the viewer with no understanding of history may leave the film with the idea that the blame for the Holocaust lies with Poles.” The petition has since been signed by tens of thousands of Ida-haters and triggered fierce historical debates in right-wing news outlets and Internet forums. On <wpolityce.pl>, Janusz Wojciechowski, MEP for Law and Justice, blames Pawlikowski for wrongly accusing Polish peasants for the assassination of the Polish Jews. (1)
Andrey Zvyagintsev had to face even harsher critique at home. His film, set in contemporary Russia, tells the story of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a jobless but skilled mechanic, who successively loses his house, wife, son and freedom, after a corrupt mayor decides to reclaim Kolya’s property in a torturous process involving dubious legal tactics and the compliancy of what seems to be a giant apparatus of fraudsters and profiteers (hence the film’s title). In many ways, the film can be seen as a parable of contemporary Russia. It shows how systemic corruption destroys social and private life. The symbolic character of the film, however, could pretty much have it take place anywhere in the world and Zvyagintsev has repeatedly stated that the real-life inspiration for Kolya was actually an American, Marvin John Heemeyer, who demolished 13 buildings and then committed suicide, after losing a zoning dispute, in 2004. Nevertheless many Russian intellectuals, politicians and church officials were not happy with what they interpreted as an unjustly negative assessment of contemporary Russia. The list of Russian Leviathan-haters is long. Timur Zulfikarov, a novelist and a playwright, Vladimir Medinsky, the country’s minister of culture, Sergey Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin loyalist, and Kirill Frolov, the head of the Russian Association of Orthodox Experts, all publicly denounced the film for unrightfully damaging the image of Russia.
While such smear campaigns seem to confirm Europe’s growing acceptance of Nationalism and Fascism, one should, perhaps, also be careful not to celebrate national enthusiasm for these films either. Vladimir Putin, according to his spokesperson, approved of Leviathan because of the fame it received abroad. (2) He understood that, symbolically, its many international awards and decorations outweigh anything the film might have to say against Russia and the autocrat’s own style of leadership. The argument, here, follows an interesting train of thought. Even the most anti-patriotic film, if successful, can be reinterpreted as national commodity. Now one could say that there is a difference between the national pride of some innocent film buff cheering for an Oscar nomination and, say, some ultraorthodox fanatic trying to ban a film on the grounds that it besmirches the alleged values of an entire nation. But is there such a thing as good nationalism?
Too often, domestic critics fight patriotic defamation with arguments about how citizens should be proud about a nation’s cultural achievement. In Poland, those journalists concerned about the nationalistic Ida-haters were mostly worried that negative press might ruin the country’s international image and limit its chance to take home another trophy, making them appear as worried about the image of their country as their opponents. (3) Even Pawlikowski himself was upset: “the controversy around the film is detrimental to the image of our country,” he said in an interview. (4) Upon receiving the prize for best picture from the European Film Academy, he reverted to populist rhetoric: “we beat Germany in football, first time in 80 years, and tonight – crowning glory.” (5)
Much of this nationalistic hype happens in spite of the films themselves. Pawlikowski, his sports-fan cheers aside, repeatedly claims that he intended his film to be antipatriotic. Having spent most of his life abroad, it also does not make a lot of sense to create a patriotic aura around the Polishness of his personality and/or art, whatever that even means. Zvyagintsev, on the other hand, truly feels Russian in everything he is and does. “There is no place I feel closer than Russia”, he said in an interview. (6) Zvyagintsev and Pawlikowski obviously have a different relation towards nationhood. What is that difference and can it be seen in their films?
Pawlikowski’s Ida takes place in Poland of the 1960s. Anna is a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) and only allowed to take her vows under the condition that she meets her only relative, a chain-smoking alcoholic but astute judge called Wanda (Agata Kulesza). They meet and Wanda tells her niece about her true identity. She was born Ida Lebenstein, a Jew, and all the traces of her family have disappeared. Thus begins a road-trip of two women trying to unearth their common past. They eventually find it buried in a forest next to the farm of Anna’s parents, now inhabited by non-Jewish Poles.
Ida deals with the problem of dealing with the past, not with the past itself. On the one hand, this narrative technique may seem more adequate. Poland’s problem is not a lack of knowledge about what happened. By now, most people in Poland know what the historian Jan T. Gross described in his book Neighbors. Published in 2000, the book gives a detailed account of the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, where the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Polish village Jedwabne killed at least 340 Jews. Gross’ findings provoked aggressive ideological as well as serious academic debates on the question of who is accountable for this and similar massacres.
Accepting these facts though, has contemporary, not historical relevance. It is regrettable that Ida associates the virtue of finding out the truth about the past with the virtue of being Jewish. Confronting the past should be a Polish, not a Jewish issue. As some critics, such as the writer Agnieszka Graff and Helena Datner, the President of the Jewish Committee in Warsaw, have pointed out, however, there is nothing Jewish about Ida. Even though Anna and Wanda are looking for their past, they do not find anything out about their Jewish past. Were Anna’s parents practicing Jews? Was Wanda always an atheist? What does Anna think about being Ida? What did she learn about Jews in her convent? Ida is a very elusive film. The absence of any kind of Jewish memory allows Pawlikowski to concentrate exclusively on the universal merits of remembering the Holocaust.
At the end of the film, Wanda commits suicide and Anna locks herself up in a nunnery. Although it is unclear why Wanda kills herself – grief, survivor’s guilt, sacrifice – the suggestion that truth kills lies quite near. Anna is portrayed with similar martyrly resignation. Pawlikowski’s film thus awkwardly conflates the experience of those trying to deal with the past with that of the victims of the past. For Poles who do want to deal with the past, this may present a problem. Are they supposed to think that they are victims? Pawlikowski seems to believe that searching for historical truth is a moral responsibility. It is certainly important to be aware of the past. But should we praise remembering and blame forgetfulness? Morally responsible are those who massacred Jews and who materially profited from the Holocaust. This is not what Ida is about.
Ida is as much a film about film as it is a film about Polish History. There are explicit and implicit references to the Polish New Wave of the 1960s. Are these references to the New Wave meant to criticize or mourn the fact that a film like Ida was absent from the Polish filmography of the 1960s? Or are they retroactive compensations for that very absence? Perhaps both. The many close-ups of melancholic faces and landscapes convey an almost religious diligence towards remembrance. On the other hand, the film’s nostalgic retro-chic also makes it easier to ignore that such dutiful recollections were systematically suppressed during the time in which Ida takes place.
What does Ida have to do with nationalism? Even though Pawlikowski’s film may have angered some ultra-nationalists, nothing in the film should make anyone upset. On the contrary, the moral virtues it attributes to the recognition of past atrocities may just be another type of nationalism, one that creates a ritualistic aura around remembering. The merits of this kind of memory culture may be deceiving. Take Germany, the father of all memory cultures. It took Germany roughly two decades, comparatively little time, to remind itself of all things Nazi. That is, provided that they didn’t happen after Nazism. The fact that most Nazi crimes remained unpunished and that Germany still widely refuses to acknowledge the failures of its post WWII justice system may just be its second biggest criminal offense of the 20th Century. All this does not stop Germany from morally capitalizing on its atrocious past, however. Every year, the country is proud to produce dozens of very self-aware WWII films. Germany’s highly sophisticated memory culture was and remains complicit in outshining attempts of real accountability.
In what way Ida takes part in a performative absolution for real accountability remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which was founded in 1998 with the goal of investigating and prosecuting Nazi and Communist crimes is similar to its German counterparts in that it is remarkably efficient in opening up investigations, but rather poor in actually prosecuting criminals. As Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in 2006: “although the IPN has opened hundreds of investigations of Holocaust crimes, only one local Nazi collaborator has been convicted and punished since the establishment of the Polish prosecution agency.” (7) Since 2001, when a Pole, Henryk Mania, was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking parts in acts of genocide at the death camp of Chelmno, this number has not increased. Efraim Zuroff disapproves of Ida. “Ida is a film about Polish Catholics not about Jews,” he recently told me in an interview.
Poland now has its own memory culture, one that places the act of remembering over what needs to be remembered. More than being a film about history, Ida is a self-conscious mise en scène of the virtues of dealing with the past. It is not surprising that the film is so successful in the West, which is most receptive for these kinds of performances. Instead of inciting discussions about what happened, politicians and the media laud the “bravery” (Alexander Yanakiev for Fipresci.org) (8) “courage” (Bogdan Zdrojewski, Poland’s Minister of Culture during the Warsaw premier), and “boldness”(Chris Cabin for Slant Magazine) (9) of the film. It can at once please patriotic Poles keen to see their national awareness reinforced, while giving outsiders the impression that Polish cinema truly demystifies.
Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s movie serves the purpose of a performance. Unlike Ida, Leviathan shows the facts. The film’s carefully constructed scenario is so straightforward about the side-effect of systemic corruption and the struggling powerless that it prompted Russians to invent a joke about it: “Walk out of your building and you have already seen Leviathan.”
Even though many critics have described Zvyagintsev’s film as enigmatic, the problems it presents are clearly defined and very few things are left vague. We even know the precise legal codes of some of the just and unjust wrongs happening in the film such as the seizure of Kolya’s house or the mayor’s unlawful trespassing of Kolya’s private property. This doesn’t keep Zvyagintsev from resorting to symbolic overtones and lofty metaphysical implications. Like Ida, Leviathan’s aesthetic is everything but realist. And yet, the film’s more ambiguous characteristics never give the impression of sacrificing reality for a cathartic social spectacle.
The most abstract problem Zvyagintsev addresses in his movie, one that it also shares with Ida, is the rather philosophical problem of moral and legal responsibility. In Leviathan, this question is explicitly addressed through Kolya’s encounter with a priest and his anecdote about the Biblical story of Job who asks God: “Why me?” after a bunch of terrible things happen to him. In Leviathan the wrongdoings happening to Kolya are initiated by a violation of property law, but later other moral and legal wrongdoings like bribery, false arrest, assault and adultery aggravate his situation. Like Job, Kolya tries to make sense about the moral reasons behind what appears to him as a series of punishments for something he can give no account of. By what rights is he guilty? Far from being lofty, vague or enigmatic, Leviathan gives three very precise conflicting answers to that question, each represented by one or more characters. Kolya believes in the moral supremacy of the law. For him, no legally valid standards are allowed to interfere with what is right and what is wrong. Laws derive from nature not from authority and unjust laws, zoning laws for instance, should not be considered laws at all. That is why Kolya thinks that there can be no claims made on his house. “Kolya, don’t you recognize authority”, the mayor asks when he fails to greet him properly. It is also the reason why Kolya doesn’t understand that the mayor is not in prison even though Kolya’s lawyer, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), uncovered evidence of his criminal past. Next there is the authority, represented by the mayor (Roman Madyanov), the town’s institutions and the state. The mayor believes that institutional authority is sufficient to justify the law. The fact that it might be unjust, unwise or inefficient is not enough for questioning its legality. Lastly there is Dima, the lawyer, who believes that law is essentially the product of human activities. That is why his strategy to win Kolya’s case is to think about how to manipulate these activities not to fight an ideological debate about who is right and who is wrong. It is not important to decide who has the authority over the law because, in the real world, judicial decisions are influenced by political and moral intuitions. In legal theory, these three points of view are also known as naturalism, positivism, and realism.
The reason why Leviathan does not come across as a lecture in legal theory is because it relies on very precise details. Unlike Ida, value discussions in Leviathan are actually depicted through images and speech. Even the seemingly random shot of a fly is a cinematographic translation of the characters’ moral conflict. The fly appears in the opening shot of a sequence in which Dima sends a legal complaint to the mayor in an attempt to weaken his power in the case. In the scene before, the Mayor paid Dima, Kolya and his family a visit late at night and insulted them by saying that they are all insects.
The biggest metaphor in the film is presented by another animal: a whale. In all scenes except one, it is dead. It is a cruel metaphor. Its carcass symbolizes the absence of real values. Even Kolya gets corrupted in his quest for justice and fight against the authorities. When he is wrongfully arrested for killing his wife, he may be legally innocent. But he breaks down into tears and perhaps feels morally responsible for his wife’s suicide. Could he have avoided it? Zvyagintsev’s film is surely pessimist, but it does not suggest that there are no values at all. On the contrary, the meditative sequences of landscapes that frame the film in the beginning and end, invite the viewer to reflect on the nature of moral responsibility. If Zvyagintsev did not believe in the existence of that nature, he would probably have ended his film with a shot on the makings of mankind. The moral question of these last images is spiritual. If a world without men can be called beautiful, can it also be good?
Ida and Leviathan are both films about moral responsibility. And yet they are fundamentally different. In Leviathan,the conflict of moral responsibility is narrated through the observation of people, their behaviour and speech, as well as through cinematographic metaphors that correspond to these observations. Leviathan may be a difficult and multi-layered film. But it is not ambiguous about the questions of responsibility it addresses. The mayor is morally and legally responsible for his wrongdoings. Only his power makes him innocent. Kolya is legally innocent but morally responsible. If he would have placed the wellbeing of his family over the fight for his rights, he could probably have avoided some of his misfortune. Ida, on the other hand, is very ambiguous on the question of moral responsibility. It replaces historical details with vague emotions about the virtues of remembering. Dealing with the past certainly has contemporary importance for Poland but it does not seem to entail real questions about moral responsibility at all.
Nothing is immune to nationalism. Leviathan can be abused by nationalists who feel that the fact that the film is Russian adds worth to its accomplishments. But nothing in the film should give any Russian a reason to feel more or less proud to be Russian. The same cannot be said about Ida. For Ida relies on the notion that Poles who are being aware of their country’s past atrocities have a reason to feel morally elated about this particular act. Ida is a film about a very Western concept of memory culture. This memory culture is performative more than it is lived. History has shown that it is very effective in calling to mind the merits of remembering but rather ineffective in giving an account of the details of the past.