What’s in a Name? The Semantics of “Ida”

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo, then offers an answer: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, as Shakespeare knew, we take names all too seriously, and for Jews especially, the results have been anything but sweet. Starting with its title, the Polish film Ida (Pawel Pawlikowsky, 2014), about the eponymous novitiate nun’s confronting her newly discovered Jewishness in early 1960s Poland, asks us to ponder not only her name’s role in the narrative, but those of the film’s significant others as well.

Names are further highlighted, and destabilized, in the opening scenes, when eighteen-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), as Ida had been called in the convent, is sent to the big city to meet, for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). A chain-smoking, promiscuous boozer, but also a respected judge, Wanda informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and, as the last name indicates, that she, like Wanda, was born a Jew. Wanda then takes Ida on a car trip to the family’s onetime farmhouse, now occupied by former neighbors, where she learns that her mother and Wanda’s son, after first being sheltered during the Nazi occupation by the neighbors, were killed by one of them. Eventually, the perpetrator, Feliks (AdamSzyszkowski)—on condition that Ida not press claims on the farmhouse—not only confesses to the murders but takes Ida and Wanda to the unmarked gravesite and digs up the remains. Traumatized by these events, and recalling Wanda’s sarcastic comment that, without carnal knowledge, she wouldn’t know what her nun’s sacrifice is for, Ida delays her vows, smokes her first cigarette, chugs a bottle of vodka, and sleeps with the hitchhiker/saxophonist, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), whom Wanda had picked up on their trip. Next morning, despite Lis’s proposed longer-term relationship, Ida heads for the convent—or possibly not. Although the final shot has her walking in that direction, it ends in mid-stride with an anguished expression on her hooded face.

Several critics, while lauding the film’s sensitivity and stark visual beauty (rendered in black-and-white and flat aspect ratio), have balked at its apparent opacity of meaning and ambiguity of intent. For those harboring such qualms, name symbolism—often of a religious nature, encouraged by a film in which Christian iconography and the memory of the Holocaust pervade the proceedings—offers useful clues.

Feliks (Felix): The name’s literal meaning—“lucky” or “successful”—for the man who gets away with murder, must be taken as a scathing critique of gentile Poles’ actions during and after the Holocaust (a view that another recent Polish film, Aftermath, extended into more recent times). Felix’s villainous historical association, meanwhile, to the Greco-Roman governor who imprisoned St. Paul, at least symbolically somewhat evens the score.

Lis: Polish for “fox,” the name, less ironically, captures the saxophonist’s seductive designs, however tempered by true affection, on Ida. Corollary symbolism attaches to the Coltrane tune Lis plays, and identifies, as Naima—a quasi-homophone of “name,” which itself was named after Coltrane’s wife. Jazz associations with sexual freedom and resistance to oppression clearly resonate as well, given Lis’s deflowering of Ida and the threat his avant-garde American music posed to Poland’s then-Communist regime.

Wanda: Befitting her function as co-protagonist and literal driver of the plot, her name is frequently spoken and foregrounded: in her telling Ida, with bitter (Jewish-related) irony, that as a judge she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” for having sentenced to death several “enemies of the people.” Jews are more directly implicated in the name Wanda’s common interpretation as “wanderer,” evoking the New Testament’s curse, and self-fulfilling prophesy, of the Wandering Jew. The trope clearly applies to Wanda herself, via her restlessly tortured soul and the trip to the farmhouse that raised the ghosts, and skeletons, of the past. An added Polish dimension relates to Wanda’s folkloric source in the daughter of Krakus, legendary 8th-century founder of Krakow, who, upon Krakus’s death, became Wanda, Queen of the Poles. Whether Queen Wanda’s eventual suicide, due to an unwanted marriage, might have parallels with the film’s “Red Wanda,” I will leave to viewer discretion.

Anna/Ida Lebenstein: The family name’s most obvious function, of course, is to denote Jewishness. This is illustrated at a bar near the farmhouse, when the bartender, in response to Wanda’s asking whether he’d known the Lebensteins, mutters that a lot of Jews used to live around there. The significance of Lebenstein’s German meaning, “life stone,” emerges at the gravesite disinterment. Alluding, if only unconsciously, to the burden of survivor guilt she henceforth must bear, Ida asks, “Why am I not here?”—and Wanda replies that, unlike her dark-haired, circumcised son, young Ida could pass for gentile.

Other “life stones” that weigh on Anna/Ida are tied to her two given names. Anna, a moniker all but connoting anonymity, is anything but in its biblical origin. Despite her having been given her new name in a Christian orphanage, Anna stems from Hannah in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings, who famously prayed for fertility and ultimately bore Samuel, the last of Israel’s judges, its first prophet, and the counselor to its first two kings, Saul and David.

From a psychological perspective, the first two letters in Ida call to mind at least two interpretations. Her initiation to smoking, drinking, and sex conjures the Freudian Id, which Ida’s prospective nun’s vows, and habit, will, at best, keep under wraps. This suppression of sensual desire, moreover, along with the relinquishment of romantic fulfillment with Lis, must be factored into the ambivalence and limbo of Ida’s film-ending stride and expression.

If capitalized as ID, the first two letters signify “identity,” which in Anna/Ida’s case couldn’t be more confused. “A Jewish nun,” Wanda had called her on their first meeting. Though she could shrug off the barb at the time, subsequent events produced an identity crisis to which her plaintive query at the gravesite—“Why am I not here?”—already spoke and her film-ending quandary underscores. “If I am not for myself, who am I?” the Talmud’s Rabbi Hillel famously asked. But who is the “self” for whom she should be: Anna or Ida, celibate or sexual woman, Christian or Jew? Beset by the trauma of her family tragedy and its associations with the Holocaust, and by the question of whether her giving herself to Jesus Christ is an act of penance or escape, perhaps only non-Judeo-Christian name symbolism can provide succor.

In its Germanic form, Ida derives from Ioun, the Norse goddess of apples and eternal youth. In its Greek derivation, Ida was, on the one hand, the nymph of Mount Ida and one of the nurses of Zeus; on the other hand, the mother of King Minos—he of the labyrinth, Ariadne, and the Minotaur—who ends up judging the dead in the underworld. Not the worst of fates, and one that at least allows a measure of revenge.

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Vincent Brook teaches at USC and UCLA and is the author or editor of five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (both 2013).

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