by Steven Prokopy
Admirers of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s IDA (a Music Box Films release), the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, have had to wait five years for his follow-up work, the bittersweet love story (again in stunning black-and-white) COLD WAR, which follows a pair of Polish lovers over a period of roughly 15 years, against the frigid political backdrop of Poland, Yugoslavia and Paris. In addition to showing the couple (Tomasz Kot as piano player Wiktor and frequent Pawlikowski actress Joanna Kulig and singer Zula) finding ways to infrequently, briefly connect over the years, COLD WAR also makes heartbreaking use of the changing musical styles of the period—from traditional Polish folk music to jazz to the earliest rock-and-roll rhythms—to reflect the emotional content and depth of their feelings for each other.
As Pawlikowski explains, the story (co-written by him and Janusz Glowacki) is loosely based on the turbulent history of his parents during the same period, but with noticeable differences. COLD WAR follows a handful of impressive works over the past 20 years, including early features THE STRINGER and LAST RESORT and continuing through English-language offerings MY SUMMER OF LOVE (which introduced many to a young actress named Emily Blunt) and THE WOMAN OF THE FIFTH, starring Ethan Hawke and Kristen Scott Thomas.
We caught up with Pawlikowski in Chicago recently about borrowing from his parents’ experience, the appeal of telling a shambolic love story, and the visual possibilities of using the Academy ratio, as well as black and white. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 18.
Question: When Paul Schrader was in town with FIRST REFORMED last year, he talked about a dinner he had with you that inspired him to begin the process of writing that film.
Pawel Pawlikowski: I know. I’m so proud. I’ve just seen the film recently and it’s really good. I didn’t know that would happen, but I could see that he was irrationally fond of IDA [laughs], and he did a wonderful speech when the film won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards [for best Foreign Language Film in 2014], he made the presentation and he was so incredibly concrete and precise in his remarks. He noticed that at the seventh minute, the camera moved by an inch, which was an accident that I kept in because, why not? But he spotted it! It’s a great honor that he mentions it now. Having seen it, it’s much more directly influenced by Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT or Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. IDA must have emboldened him to head in that direction. I remember his films from way back when—AMERICAN GIGOLO, MISHIMA and TAXI DRIVER—those films really deformed me for years.
You dedicate COLD WAR to your parents, who have the same names as the characters in the film. Tell me about the connection.
PP: There is a lot of overlap, and the mechanics of the relationship are more or less the same. The reason I made the film and came up with the story many, many years ago—I always had the story of this couple, very glamorous, good-looking protagonists, strong, very different. She’s blonde and very womanly; he’s tall and more inward, and they fell in love and the rest is a shambles. The split, got together again, had me, fell apart again, left the country after divorcing, married other people, and then met again abroad this time, then fell apart again because they couldn’t be together. That took 40 years in their case, but I couldn’t tell such a messy, drawn-out story, so I forgot about them for while and created another couple who are not them and are brought together by music.
My mother was a ballerina when she was young, when they first met; and my father was a doctor, so music wasn’t the thing that brought them together, as it is for this couple. But the mechanics of the relationship and the fact that they are both strong protagonists make it so when they get back together, they realize they aren’t the way they were back home. I remember that precisely—he’s some kind of hero, she’s pissed off having to adopt to foreign ways. Then at the end of the road, after 40 years of this, they got together and are such a wonderful couple—too tired to fight [laughs]. Suddenly, they realized that there is nobody in the world that knows them better than the other—they have this history together—so they’re a very touching couple, holding hands, with a dog in the forrest. They were living together, and then just before he wall came down, they died.
You said this was a story that’s been swirling around in your head, unformed. Could a younger version of you even have made this? This feels like a film from someone who has lived a life and knows how it works. You might not have been able to make this movie 20 years ago.
PP: No, you're right. You have to have seen all sorts of things, to have a certain distance and to be playful with it. It’s true. You have to get the whole ambiguity of life and paradoxical nature of it all. And how do you combine both, the shambles with the only story they’ve ever had. It’s difficult when you’re closer to that kind of mayhem emotionally. You have to get a distance from it.
And time gives you that distance, it’s true. You hadn’t made a film in Poland for a while before IDA and now COLD WAR. Was it strange coming back? Actually, you didn’t make films in Poland before these, did you?
PP: No, I left at 14. I made documentaries in Britain, but later I made film in Eastern Europe, but not Poland. I was very inhibited about working in Poland because I didn’t know how to show it in a good light. I made documentaries in the Balkans, in Russia, in countries that were post-communist. Then when I came to make fiction films, I was living in England and I would invent stories that were within my reach. When the moment came and I had to change everything in my life—my kids left home, my late wife died—Poland became this big, unfinished story and something that really made me want to make films again.
And then you start winning Oscars…
PP: [laughs] Exactly!
I’ve seen COLD WAR twice now. The way that you use music as the framework of the bigger story and the things that brings them together, it feels like once you figured out that that was going to be the through-line of the piece, that it unlocked the whole story for you.
PP: Music and the idea of this folk ensemble, because that didn’t happen to my parents. My mother was in a folk ballet at some point, so I was always toying with the idea. But he’s this arranger, composer for this folk ensemble, and she tricks her way in. Plus the folk music I kind of like, so one I had that, that was the third element. With all of my films, I have an idea that I play with for a long time—a relationship or something—and then there’s this other element that comes in and places everything in a certain order, and then it works. Music was the result of that, this notion of the folk ensemble.
Although, one of my favorite moments is in Paris when “Rock Around the Clock” kicks in, and the whole place lights up and you realize that Western influence has arrived.
PP: But he doesn’t notice at all. You can literally see civilization change. But before that, you see how boring and stuffy this salon life is, and then suddenly “Rock Around the Clock” is a liberation. The audience enjoys that bit of energy.
Beginning with the title, there is a commentary here about the suppressive nature of communism and the Soviet overlords. Do you consider this a political film?
PP: Almost by the way. Not primarily, but when I invented the story, the main thing is the characters and the transcendent thing behind fate or love, but I wouldn’t do it if there weren’t other pleasures—politics being one of them. Through life stories and relationships, you can tell a lot of about other stuff if you don’t foreground that stuff. Usually when you foreground it, it goes dead. Here, there are a lot of politics—Stalinism being one, the police state, this conformist attitude that it brings forth, which is not unfamiliar in these days with people mastering a certain nationalist lingo. Although today in Poland, nobody gets killed or imprisoned—at least not yet, anyway. We don’t have totalitarianism, but there are some echoes.
Also, the folk ensemble on which I based my fictional one, was founded in 1949 and still exists today, and in these last few months, the government decided it was a very good visiting card of our country, so they’re giving them huge subsidies because it’s patriotic art, and taking away from avant-garde theater and other decadent stuff.
What do the overseers of culture in Poland think of your movie?
PP: This one? They don’t see the parallels, strangely enough. It’s been a huge, popular hit, so they can’t argue with that. They still believe Stalin was a bad thing, although we don’t show it in a crude way they way they would like to see it, with blood and torture. I want to show how it impacted characters and relationships. So it’s exactly the type of film they want to see, but when it comes to one character being co-opted by the minister of culture, it’s not unlike when the Polish national airline being relaunching and the ministers are all there, and who should appear but this folk ensemble dancing around the plane on the tarmac. My friends were sending me messages saying, “Fuck, the dancers are on television but in color.”
The way that you jump forward in time reminded me of motion-sensitive lighting—you only turn the camera on when they are together. And some people have complained that we don’t know what happens to them in between, and I think “It doesn’t matter. That’s not what this story is about.”
PP: You could show it, and at some point I even wrote a scene when she marries an Italian guy, and he comes to visit her in Italy when she’s married to somebody. But I thought that what’s strong is the focus on the double act. Why waste footage and time and energy and money on anything outside of that.
And you give just enough clues to let us fill in what we need to know.
PP: Yeah, she says “I married this Italian guy.” But we don’t want to know the details, because it would depress him. And there’s some mention of him being a count of something, but she says he was just a salesman [laughs]. She may be from the lower depths in Poland, but she maybe married an aristocrat.
I love that you give her this backstory that is a criminal past. It makes her an exciting and unpredictable person. We find out she’s very passionate about certain things, even if it gets her in trouble. You’ve worked with Joanna before, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part. What is it that brought you two back together, other than the fact that she’s a great singer?
PP: Well, that. I kind of wrote it for her. I always imagined her and could see her doing things like jumping into the water and saying certain phrases, but I still kept thinking that maybe I’d find a new Joanna. You never know. But she’s quite unique; there’s no other Joanna.
Thomas has a perfect combination of 1940s American movie star good looks combined with a grittier 1960s European vibe. Was there someone you had in mind that he was meant to be like?
PP: No one in particular. I just wanted him to be this pre-war manly but not macho man, educated, upper-class Polish, who has a certain presence and keeps to himself, which he needs to do in that system during the late 1940s. I wanted him to look like a leading man but no one in particular. I love Gregory Peck, and strangely my father—he was terrible womanizer, and all women though he looked like Gregory Peck, so I went full circle a bit. Maybe he’s the ideal man.
You go back to black and white, as you did with IDA—it is the color of history. Why did you want to use it again?
PP: I love it but I didn’t want to indulge myself with black and white again. I did some research with my director of photography and questioned whether we make it in color. But I realized that color didn’t make any sense. There was no good color for that period in Poland that could be real and expressive at the same time. It was a very grey, underlit country, with everyone wearing grey outfits. So any color we would have introduced would have been very arbitrary, much more arbitrary than black and white with a lot of contrast, which made it more colorful than if we did it in color.
And using the Academy ratio?
PP: I just got used to it. Also, I like the idea of controlling what you see very precisely and suggest stuff on the outskirts through sound, but when the camera moves, you discover stuff. It’s a very good format to set yourself limitations. It makes you think of what exists beyond the frame, and also what we lose on the sides, we gain in depth. Very often, we can put the camera higher up and add layers in depth, so there a lot of stuff happening in the background. But sometimes when you see it on a big screen and you see this image just in the middle, I wonder why the hell I did this [laughs]. But when you see it in a good theater when it’s actually perfectly projected, you see that it’s really good for portraits—single or double portraits. That scene on the river, that developing shot, it starts with two heads, very close, and then he gets up and she gets up, and he moves away and she walks up to him, and things get very close and things get pretty wide. But with a widescreen, that type of development wouldn’t have been possible.
Great speaking with you. Best of luck with this.
PP: Thank you.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”