Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland, but moved to England with his mother when he was a teenager. After studying literature and philosophy at Oxford, he established his career as filmmaker, first with documentaries before turning to fiction with such films as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2003). But then he traveled back to his native country to make his 2013 Academy Award-winning drama Ida about a 1960s era novitiate who receives life-changing news about her identity. In making the movie, Pawlikowski realized he was home. Now, he has made a new feature, Cold War, about the tumultuous relationship between a singer (Joanna Kulig) and a jazz musician (Tomasz Kot) who fall in love in Stalinist, post-World War II Poland. Pawlikowski won the directing award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The film is on the shortlist for the foreign-language Academy Award; won five European Film Awards, including best European film; and received four BAFTA nominations, among other honors. In October, Pawlikowski was feted with a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was during that visit to the San Francisco Bay Area that this conversation took place.
Q: You spent most of your career in the West. What brought you back to Poland?
Pawel Pawlikowski: Many things. I reached a certain age, I suppose, where I needed to change something. My kids grew up and left home. My wife died. I didn’t originally plan to move back to Poland, but when I started preparing Ida, I just started feeling very at home there. A friend, Agnieszka Holland, lent me her flat in Warsaw, very near to where I used to live. I felt very at home. It was very peculiar. Driving around Poland looking for locations, I recognized landscapes from my childhood. I suddenly felt like this is where I feel most at home. It has something to do with age. Half of one’s life, one tries to escape from somewhere and the other half, wants to get back somewhere. Poland just feels like home. It’s like finding a pair of slippers that feel very comfy. Of course, I chose a very interesting time politically—a couple of years later after the election [of Poland’s right-wing President Andrzej Duda], it doesn’t look so cozy.
When I dreamt of something, it always tended to be some corner of Warsaw. It’s also a city I feel very sentimental and affectionate about, partly because we grew up among ruins. Not literally ruins, I’m exaggerating, but I was born 13 years after the war and there were still bullet holes in the walls of my house. With every step, you find history. Here’s where 300 people were executed during the Warsaw Uprising. Here is the entrance to the sewer, just outside my flat now, the entrance to the sewer through which the insurgents were escaping to another area and here is the Ghetto. It was flattened and it’s completely different. It’s haunted. Warsaw is a haunted city. It’s not a tourist attraction, but if you have imagination, it’s the most fascinating city in the world. I actually love it very much.
Q: Since you’ve been back, the two films you’ve made Ida and now Cold War take place during the Communist era. Does that time have a particular pull for you?
PP: There are several reasons, I suppose. It’s a world in which you can tell stories where digital technology is not important and where everything you do has huge consequences. It seems like people, whatever they do, there’s something kind of fatal about it. You can look across a table or look across a room and see somebody fall in love. Where moral problems are focused. I think in today’s world it’s very difficult to find that. Some directors do it very well, like Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure, The Square] who makes fantastic films about today with moral issues. But that [earlier era] is where I feel more confident and more attracted to, as well. I like a world that is less cluttered with images, information, sounds, where everything becomes quite expressive and you can really look properly. I find today there’s too much stuff that washes over you. For me. It’s a midlife crisis thing.
Q: Cold War is dedicated to your parents and was inspired by your parents, but the story is not about them. Talk about that inspiration and how it led to the tale of this couple.
PP: My parents had a very tempestuous marriage. Clearly, in the back of my head, I’ve had their story hovering over me for a long time. When they were still alive, it was just a source of amusement and irritation, horror, because when I was 13, they divorced. They were fighting all the time. And then I met their partners and it wasn’t great for a teenage son. I was the only son, so it was very intense. Then it became almost comical in a way in the way they couldn’t get on when they met again in the West. Then they died in total harmony, but after 40 years of [passionate conflict]. They were too tired to fight. When they died in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, just before the Cold War ended, I had this feeling that I’d been the witness to an amazing love story. It didn’t look like a love story most of the time, but it actually was.
That was somewhere in the back of my head when I was inventing other stories, but I always kind of went back to this jewel, two characters who are equally strong and who don’t give in, who spend a lot of time apart from each other and fantasize each other. They build each other up and then something happens that destroys that idea of themselves. That was always the matrix of all love stories, in a way. Ten years ago, I thought, “This would be a really good story to tell.” Not because I need to tell it, but it’s a good story. It’s a very difficult story to tell, because it’s so messy, but what’s good about is you have these strong, contradictory characters who are never quite good enough or bad enough, who live in historical times, which is always really important, the way history forces their hand. Occasionally, I tried to write it up, but I was always too close to the real thing. Dramatically, it was not that interesting. Ida gave me the confidence to tell things synthetically, elliptically. I didn’t have to be literal and explain everything. Around then, I also thought that music would be an important element, which would change things, take it away from my parents, who were not musicians. Music brings them together, keeps them together, and then kind of illustrates all the ups and downs and the changes in their relationship.
Q: The music from that era is so evocative, the jazz from that era, even album cover designs.
PP: Exactly, and there wasn’t such a glut of stuff. Everything was meaningful. Also, jazz was banned in Stalinist Poland, so if you played jazz, it meant something. You weren’t just playing jazz because you liked it, as one of many things you could do. Also, folk music was interesting. I started with genuine folk music. I found all these performers around Poland to perform these songs. Then you see them transformed into this folk ensemble with this orchestra. When something big like that comes about, of course, politics steps in and coopts it. That’s inspired by a real story of a folk ensemble that got coopted. The Communist regime decided that folk music was the music of the people as opposed to bourgeois, decadent jazz. Art wasn’t something that just happened; it was all pretty state controlled. The official doctrine of the Stalinist period in art was social realism. The formula for that was that the music should be popular in form and socialist in content. So, this folk ensemble that started innocently becomes the official art of the state. Then, in the West, the same number becomes a bebop number, a melody they dance to.
Music is always not just something people do. It has meaning. It has a kind of resonance. In terms of the film, the narrative, it tells you where we are and when we are. And then “Rock Around the Clock” crops up in ’57. Also, at that point, I didn’t think about it, but when I watched the film in Cannes, yeah, it’s true, because there is a 10-year difference between Zula and Viktor, and “Rock Around the Clock” he doesn’t react to at all. He just keeps talking to that other guy, whereas for her, the devil enters her and she goes off on this drunken solo dance. So, you can see the difference between them. This is a wedge between them that is generational, too. There was a 10-year gap between my father and my mother and she was much more crazy. So, yes, music is always both historical and psychological. You can use it in so many ways. It’s great that they are both musicians, so you can play with that.
Q: Both Ida and Cold War are in black and white and eschew widescreen for the narrower Academy ratio. What was your thinking behind those choices?
PP: With Ida, it was one thing. With Cold War, it’s another. Ida, I wanted to remove it from reality slightly, which is in color. Also, it was partially inspired by my family album, my photo album, which was all in black and white. Here, in Cold War, I started out thinking I was going to make a color film and then I just couldn’t find the right colors. Colors that would feel lively enough, Poland was very gray at that time. In a way, making it in black and white was a way of making it more colorful, more punchy and constrasty. If I was actually quite truthful to the colors of the time, they would have been really murky and monotonous. To invent some new colors or some different colors would have been fake. I thought black and white was more truthful. If the film had been set in the States, I would have used color, because in the States you had saturated colors in the ‘50s. I would’ve been thinking about that world, Hopper’s paintings, photographs. –Pam Grady