Pawel Pawlikowski’s Accidental “Ida” Discovery

LONDON–The Polish Twittersphere went slightly mad on January 15. Not only had the film “Ida”been nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, but Poland’s entry also had been nominated in the category for Best Cinematography. There were ecstatic comments by proud Poles (and other fans of the film) that this award was competing against the big Hollywood guns for the prize. The film, shot in black and white with the vast majority of the scenes using only one angle, does have a masterpiece quality to it, feeling very art house and intimate. Set in the early 1960s in post-war communist Poland, the film is based around a young novice nun who learns that she is Jewish and her family were killed during the war.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski says that the movie was mostly shot by a Łukasz Zal, a young camera operator who took over the job when the first cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski—who had worked with Pawlikowski on films including “My Summer of Love” and The Woman in the Fifth”—left shortly into filming. “Ryszard dropped out of the film, he did not quite enjoy the way I was doing it,” says Pawlikowski. “He did not quite feel at home.” The 33-year-old Zal had never shot a feature film before, which Pawlikowski says proved to be a blessing. “He was not scared of strange compositions, he got the static camera,” says director.It was not the only lucky break. Because of so much snow during the filming of the movie, Pawlikowski was able to rewrite about a third of the film while waiting for the snow to stop. “I got it much more focused and coherent,” the 57 year-old Warsaw-based director says. “So it was sort of like a disaster movie where everything goes wrong but everything works in your favor in another way.”

Poles have long had a reputation for being good at cinematography: Piotr Sobocinski (“Three Colors: Red”), Pawel Edelman (“The Pianist”) and Slawomir Idziak (“Black Hawk Down”) have all been nominated for Academy Awards while Janusz Kaminski has won Best Cinematography for both “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” as well as nominated for “War Horse,” “Amistad” and “Lincoln.” So even though Pawlikowski says Lenczewski’s leaving at the beginning of filming “left me in a little bit of a shtook,” the director may have found and mentored yet another talented Pole with a promising future in Hollywood cinematography.

This piece originally was published in “Speakeasy” on wsj.com