Holocaust (illustration)
Holocaust (illustration)Reuters

"Ida" - which won the best foreign language film Oscar on Sunday - is a haunting and controversial drama that lays bare the difficult legacy of the Nazi occupation of Poland and post-war Stalinist rule.

The black-and-white film shot with uncompromising honesty by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski has sparked criticism at home, while earning awards abroad, including a BAFTA, reports AFP.

"We made a film about...the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation, and here we are. At the epicenter of noise and world attention. Fantastic, you know," Pawlikowski told the Oscars audience at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.

"Life is full of surprises," he added.

The film tells the story of Ida, a young woman in 1960s communist Poland who learns as she is about to take her vows at a Catholic convent that she is Jewish, her parents were murdered under Nazi occupation at the time of the Holocaust, and she was raised by the nuns.

The young woman, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, embarks on a journey of self-discovery with her aunt, a disillusioned Stalinist-era official who is a tool in the regime's persecution of opponents.

The film explores topics that are nearly taboo in Poland - including the murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation by Poles with whom they sought refuge, a fact swept under the rug in the post-war period.

It also takes an unsparing look at the alleged role of Jewish communists in post-war Poland's security services and judiciary, bodies which were known for torturing and killing regime opponents - a role that was obscured for decades until communism fell in 1989.

"Christianize the Holocaust"?

Pawlikowski insists that he did not make the film as a history lesson, but its stark messages have stirred controversy in his homeland.

The Polish Anti-Defamation League has cried foul, saying that "Ida" risks giving foreign audiences the erroneous impression that Poles were behind the Holocaust.

An Internet petition launched by the league and demanding that the director insert commentary into the film about Nazi Germany's wartime occupation of Poland has gathered 50,000 signatures.

It has asked the Polish Film Institute, which co-financed the production, to make sure the film makes clear that thousands of Poles saved Jews during the occupation and paid for it with their lives.

Leftist Polish intellectuals meanwhile have a different beef.

Leading academic Agnieszka Graff accused the film of pandering to "anti-Semitic stereotypes" while also attempting to "Christianize the Holocaust."

Since its October 2013 release, "Ida" has drawn both critical acclaim and praise from audiences for its complex plot and minimalist aesthetic.

Half a million viewers have seen it in France and the United States, while juries at festivals in London, Minsk, Riga and Toronto have feted it with awards.

It also earned an Oscar nomination for best cinematography.

Pawlikowski - who was born in Warsaw in 1957 and has lived in Germany, Italy, Britain and France - has shrugged off the controversy over the film at home.

He told the Hollywood-based Deadline.com website that it was "too silly to comment on."

"I wanted to make the film very specific and very concrete, and at the same time universal and poetic," he said.

"Audiences in Brazil, Spain or Finland respond to it because it transcends the time and the place where it is set. And not because they are being educated about the ins and outs of Polish history," argued the director.