Pawel Pawlikowski directed a wonderful picture, Ida, nominated at the 2015 Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. Ida takes place in Poland in 1962 and follows a young mysterious woman, Anna, whom is ready to take her vows as a nun (read the review here). The mother superior at the convent tells her to visit her aunt Wanda before making her decision. She goes to Warsaw and meets her aunt, a judge, whom tells her that she was born jewish and her birth name was Ida. She learns as well that her parents were killed during World War two because of their religion and culture. At this point they decide to find the graves of her parents and indirectly confront their faith and past. This picture tells a compelling story engraved in deep themes related to European heritage such as war, communism, politics, religion, history, identities, memories and power.
Ida was shot in black and white making it so precise, net and pure thanks to splendid movements of camera and sumptuous angles. As explained by Pawlikowski, whom left Poland when he was 14 years old, making this movie in Poland in the 1960s was a way to reconstruct a Poland at “a time I [Pawlikowski] vaguely but very intensely remember. That was my childhood.” Pawlikowski’s imagined and reconstructed Poland gives a very romantic and timeless tone despite the darkness of the story.
Ida is more than ever relevant today considering the resurgent tone of anti-semitism flourishing and spreading all around Europe. One core theme of Ida is dying because of one’s religion. World War two was in some degree the paramount of the organized killing of Jews across Europe. Ensuing the Wannasse conference in January 1942, the Nazis leadership institutionalized the killing of ethnic groups, principally the Jewish people and Tsiganes. This conference provided the baseline for the policy of antisemitism known as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Since 1945 and the Nuremberg trials Europe as a whole has been dealing with this dark past and heritage. Most European countries were complacent and ind- and/or -directly involved in this genocide. The ghosts of the Final Solution have remained in Europe since then. Ida is a reminder.
Antisemitism in Europe and France in the 21st century
This question of antisemitism is reappearing in Europe and especially in France and Germany since the turn of the new century. The rise of extreme right wing parties – as well called populist or ultranationalist – and their acceptations as powerful political force have changed the political narratives and rhetorics. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it seems that the gates have been opened and that European leaders and ruling parties are now superficially addressing this problem of antisemitism for too long ignored. Several elements should be analyzed about the question of islamophobia, antisemitism, and extreme rights in Europe and France.
First, on February 17th, 2015, the Council of Europe published a 52-page report about the rise of intolerance, racism, hate speech and violence against minorities in France. “The council is concerned” said Nils Muižnieks, the commissioner of human rights for the Council of Europe, “about the decrease of tolerance and the increase of verbal assaults and hateful and discriminatory acts recorded in France.” M. Muižnieks went on in his presentation of the report arguing that “In recent years, there has been a huge increase in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic acts. In the first half of 2014 alone, the number of anti-Semitic acts virtually doubled, while the number of Jews leaving France for Israel tripled compared with 2012, which is a telling indication of their feeling of insecurity.”
In the Council’s report, he underlines that the intolerance and racism are not ephemeral, but are rather deeply ingrained. He adds that these acts are an illustration of the continuous and permanent decline of the ‘social contract’ and the principle of equality; in sum the welfare state and its basic virtue of tolerance related to the core value of fraternity. He calls national authorities to do more at the national level and implement a national action plan and severely condemned these daily discriminatory and racist behaviors.
Second, what about European public opinion? Is it all about political rhetorics? A second report, titled “Antisemitism in the French Public Opinion. New Understanding” (in French, L’antisémitisme dans l’Opinion Publique Française. Nouveaux Eclairages) published in November 2014, under the direction of Professor Dominique Reynié seeks to look at the segments of French public opinion sensitive to antisemitic sentiments (here is a link to a recent interview on French National Radio, France Inter). In the introduction, Prof. Reynié writes that the question of antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism is reappearing in democracies, in Europe and France. Even though there is nothing new, the preoccupation is about the renewal (le regain in French) since the 1990s, which required a clear attention and action (p. 5). He claims that there are several obvious factors such as: globalization, identity crisis of Western democracies, fear of the rise of new world powers, migration flux, societal malaise caused in part by failed integration policies (multiculturalism or assimilation), aging populations, economic and financial crisis (in Europe), and political crisis (in Europe with serious disillusionment with mainstream/traditional political parties and establishments).
However, the real contribution of the report, aside from the fact that antisemitism is shared across party lines from the extreme left to right, is that one element has been forgotten in explaining the rise of these extremist sentiments, the internet. Prof. Reynié argues that the internet offers a platform where people can express themselves in all impunity, without having to face the consequences of their actions and words (p. 6). Additionally the report shows that between 2000 and 2014, France has seen an increase by 91% of antisemitic acts (p. 7). The recent reports of acts of vandalism in French cemeteries were linked to antisemitic motives.
Undeniably, both reports coincide with the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen targeting journalists and Jewish people. As demonstrated in Reynié’s report and in other polls, Jews of Europe are being largely targeted and blamed for all Europe’s trouble. In the case of France, the extreme right – which is not as homogenous as believed and described – is seeing the rise of even more radical and racist sub-branches than the Front National.
The Front National is becoming, for better or worst, a mainstream party now accepted by a large segment of French and European population and by a group of right-wing politicians of the UMP (read here a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine about the newly found respectability of the Party under Marine Le Pen). New parties, like the Réconciliation Nationale, led by French comedian Dieudonné and pseudo-intellectual Alain Soral are changing the bedrock of French political narrative. In the case of the Réconciliation Nationale, the party lines are multiple and contradictory: anti-zionism, anti-capitalism, anti-Europe, anti-bourgeois, leftist for labor policies, and rightwing conservative in political values. The rise of such party can be explained by the internet and social media. As argued in Reynié’s report, the internet has changed the way political communities are made and structured and allowed all types of rhetorics without impunities. In the case of the Dieudonné-Soral political union, the center-point is the website, Egalité&Réconciliation.
Some analysts have argued that the antisemitic sentiments in Europe is caused by Israel’s actions in the Middle East. However, it is difficult to take such argument seriously for several reasons: first, antisemitism has existed well before the creation of the state of Israel; and second, antisemites, as in the case of the Dieudonné-Soral union, are neither in support of Palestinian and Arab causes.
Ida – A Tail of Two Europes
How Ida and the rise of antisemitism in contemporary Europe can be compared? The main theme of Ida is a search of one’s identity. And in the current political chessboard of Europe, Europeans, and especially French in this article, are as well in search of their identities. Antisemitic sentiments have existed in most of Europe’s, and christian, history and continue to live on. Ida offers a wonderful look at several Europes: an historical Europe, one divided by the Wall between the Soviet Union and the West; and a present Europe in search of its identity and origins forcing to dig in the worst of its memories and realities. Today’s Europe is as divided as before, not by a physical Wall, but by an imagined-Wall between Europeans based on cultural-religious traditions and values.
Considering the odds of Ida winning the Oscars, the New Yorker writes “it’s hard to bet against the historico-politico-religious sanctimoniousness of ‘Ida.'” In his interview with the New York Times, Pawlikowski was asked about the warm receptions of his movie. “What seemed to have worked” he argued “is precisely that the film doesn’t try to explain things but actually draws the audience in at a very basic psychological and emotional level, and makes them feel as if they’re watching something timeless.” Even though the European construction is a political marvel, its dark historical root and heritage seem unfortunately timeless too.