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22 December

Beethoven debuts 5th Symphony, 1808

On this day in 1808, the composer Ludwig van Beethoven debuted his most famous work, the 5th Symphony, at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. It was a big evening, lasting more than four hours, at which Beethoven also debuted his 6th Symphony, his 4th Piano Concerto, plus a few other items, with the whole evening rounded off by another debut, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, which he had written specifically as a big show-off finale piece. Possibly because there was so much new material to familiarise the orchestra with, partly because rehearsals were rushed, partly because Beethoven was going deaf, and partly because the auditorium was very cold and the evening went on so long, for all these reasons – plus the fact that it wasn’t a greatest hits show – the night did not go well. However, the 5th seemed to score a hit with some critics, ETA Hoffmann calling it an “indescribably profound, magnificent symphony.”

Ida (2013, dir: Pawel Pawlikowski)

Ida tells the story of a young Polish woman, raised in an orphanage run by nuns and now on the point of taking the veil herself, who discovers that she isn’t the woman she thought she was. Her real name is not Anna, but Ida, and she isn’t Catholic, she’s Jewish, in terms of her family background at least. On top of that she has a surviving relative, an aunt called Wanda. And off she’s bundled by the severe but kindly Mother Superior, to meet the aunt and work out whether ancestry or upbringing is going to dictate the rest of her life. The stage is set for an unusual road movie as the newly reconnected relatives drive around Poland trying to find traces of a family that disappeared in the neighbour-on-neighbour Polish version of the Holocaust.

Relationships are at the heart of every road movie, and here we have one to rival Sideways – the wide-eyed novitiate, the blowsy and frequently drunk older woman. But the end-point isn’t a warm Californian vineyard, it’s a shallow grave out in the woods where Jews died in wartime. And it’s places such as the old family home, now occupied by ethnic Poles, bristling and hostile when Ida and Wanda come by to satisfy their curiosity rather than stake any claim – though who knows? Shooting in a strongly retro style – 4:3 format, in black and white, with people and objects often hovering half out of frame, overhead shots bringing to mind the geometrical compositions of photographer Moholy Nagy – director Pawel Pawlikowski pays homage to the extraordinary Polish New Wave of the 1960s. Whether a subject such as mass extermination is best served by artistic pastiche, I’m really not sure.

But Pawlikowski has really got the look right. And the settings – it can only be a matter of time before those Sovietski locations start to dry up in the former Eastern Bloc. And the story – grim but leavened with humour, sex and discovery. And the actors – Agata Kulesza as Wanda does raddled slattern with real gusto, and the point where she reveals that she used to be a party functionary, starts barking at people and they all snap into line, that’s a scene to make you sit up in your chair. As for Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida/Anna, she’s not only a great actress who pulls off the feat of suggesting a girl’s increasing worldliness, but she’s also astonishingly beautiful. We’re going to have to learn to pronounce her name.

Why Watch?

  • Best film award at the 2013 London Film Festival
  • Pawlikowski’s homage to the Polish New Wave
  • Beethoven’s forceful, mournful music plays a decisive role
  • It’s the history of the West – 1940s excess versus 1960s excess

Ida – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013


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