One of the many things taught me by my dear Viennese friend Trude Winik (1909-1998), who lost her father in the First World War and her mother, brother and sister to the camps in the Second, was that the past is always present so long as the person who experienced it lives on. In Trude's case it was a guilt which haunted her every day, that she survived when the rest of her family didn't. Now a gripping family history, Matthew Zajac's The Tailor of Inverness, and a film about life two decades or so after the end of World War Two, Ida by that superb filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski who had already given us two very different and equally fine British movies, Last Resort and My Summer of Love, remind us that the past lives on in the next generation too.
It was serendipity that I came across The Tailor of Inverness among the books sold alongside the box office in Inverness's Eden Court Theatre the day before we watched the DVD of Ida - in turn, the day before it won the Best Foreign Language Film category in the Oscars (not that one cares for any ceremony which omits Mike Leigh's masterpiece Mr Turner from the main categories - I rant about that in my DVD review for The Arts Desk).The blurb made it sound interesting, but more especially I liked the idea of supporting a local publisher, Sandstone Press. More in the next post of why I was up there last weekend.
I don't know how much I can say about book and film without giving crucial information away. Both are thrillers in the sense of revealing surprise informaton - and Ida has a gut-wrenching twist about two-thirds of the way through for which I was completely unprepared, so you should be too. Both remind us that few folk escaped from the maelstrom of the war in central Europe uncompromised, let along unscarred. Zajac Senior came to Britain in 1948, married an Englishwoman and settled in Inverness where he made a success as a tailor after early vicissitudes.
Son Matthew (pictured on the cover of the book and above, by Murdo MacLeod, playing his father) speaks simply but rapturously of summers with his uncle in Lesna, south west Poland, a place of natural plenty. The kindness of relatives and friends is an overwhelming constant throughout, and helps him weather the revelations when they come. Suffice it to say that as an accomplished actor with his own theatre group, he made an Edinburgh Fringe First winning play about his journey of discovery which toured to the places he visited, Poland and Ukraine, among others. He writes:
It seemed right to me to take the story back to its origins, but I was nervous about how it would be received [well, as it turned out]. I was conscious that it could be viewed as a presumptuous act, for a foreigner to have the gall to tell Poles and Ukrainians their own story. But my previous trips to Ukraine in particular had told me that this was a story which had rarely been expressed on a public platform. The shock of the war and subsequent 45-year Soviet stasis retained their grip. The fear of speaking out which was endemic to the old Stalinist culture meant that many people, particularly in the older generations, still had a policeman in their head.
These are the same preoccupations of Ida. Framed as the kind of 1960s Polish art film the director remembered from his youth, in the square format then common, every scene is composed with an aching beauty, and there's a special affection for the bands of that time (the love-interest saxophonist is very handsome, too). Like any great film from the European masters, it has remarkable performances - in this case the contrasts and symmetries played out by Agata Trzebushowska's ambivalent Ida and the magnetic Agata Kulesza as Wanda, communist functionary with a painful secret.
Also as in any great film, the music is kept to a minimum; the actresses and the cinematography carry it all. I don't think I want to write any more: just see it.