• Ida

Now in its fourth week at the Music Box Theatre, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida not only takes place in early-60s Poland, but it looks like it was made then too. The jazz musician who hitches a ride with the title character and her aunt seems to have stepped out of Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (which screened last weekend at the Siskel Film Center as part of the “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” series). For that matter, the aunt—a jaded, high-profile member of the Polish communist party—might well be friends with the couple in Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water. But it’s Pawlikowski’s use of the Academy ratio that solidifies the connection to early-60s eastern European cinema. Throughout Ida Pawlikowski emphasizes the height of the screen by placing characters near the bottom of the frame and reserving the top two-thirds or so for negative space. This approach to framing recalls Czech director Frantisek Vlacil’s groundbreaking early features The White Dove (1960) and The Devil’s Trap (1962), as well as the 1960 Polish film Mother Joan of the Angels—which, coincidentally, screens at the Siskel Center this week.

  • The White Dove

  • The Devil’s Trap

  • Mother Joan of the Angels

In all of these cases, the filmmakers add to the sense of verticality by limiting the principal action to a narrow portion of the shot. (Architects in the art deco period employed similar methods to make their skyscrapers appear taller—check out the edifice of the Chicago Board of Trade for an especially compelling example.) The playing space, seemingly much taller than it is broad, suggests a wide-screen image turned 90 degrees on its axis. It’s a powerful effect, as it creates the impression that the world of the film might stretch upwards into infinity. The effect carries religious connotations in Mother Joan and Ida, though there’s also a pronounced sense of wonder in Vlacil’s Academy-ratio films.

One of the earliest and boldest examples of this technique can be found in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Griffith wasn’t the only silent-film director to play fast and loose with the parameters of the shot, but he probably played better than anyone else by blacking out different portions of the image to create frames of all sorts of shapes. During a battle sequence in the Babylon-set portion of Intolerance, Griffith shows a soldier falling to his death from the top of a tower. The action occupies just the middle third of the frame—and the left and right sides are totally black. Making the screen seem taller, Griffith makes the soldier’s descent seem that much scarier. The frame that inspires us to look up can also force us to look down.