To put in Tinseltown lingo, Pawel Pawlikowski is “on a roll.” The Polish filmmaker’s 2014 feature Ida, a haunting portrait of a nun-to-be who learns she’s actually Jewish as she makes her first flirtations with sin and adulthood, earned him an Oscar, and he’s an odds-on favorite for a repeat nomination in 2019. His masterly new film Cold War already made a splash at Cannes earlier this year, where the swooning mid-century romance netted its creator another addition to his trophy case along with a cavalcade of critical plaudits. But talking with Vulture on a brisk morning at Cinetic’s offices on the west side of Manhattan, he doesn’t behave like a man who has the biz beating down his front door.
He doesn’t need to be a power player to make films like Cold War, and that’s all he’s interested in making. It’s a labor of love, produced on a small scale affecting the grandeur of a much larger one, and most importantly, he had the creative leeway to obsess over every last frame. The genius in the tempestuous courtship between steely singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and her musical director Wiktor seeps out through the details, both of its postwar Polish setting — all ruinous beauty and beauteous ruin in crisp monochrome cinematography — and of the tender dynamic between the central pair, who love and fight and make music with the same unfading passion.
Mere days before Cold War cracked the Academy’s foreign film short list, Pawlikowski spoke candidly about composing a distinctive frame, returning to his homeland, and chasing that elusive artistic–narrative “hard-on.”
You spent most of the 2000s working with British and American actors on English-language films. What motivated you to return to Poland with Ida, and now Cold War?
Life, you know? Life, and the urge to return to a world which has always been with me, though I’ve never had the chance to show it through cinema. You always make films about where your head is at the time, so at some point after my kids left home, I’d finished my chapter in England. I did something in Paris, realized Paris is not my world. I had stories I wanted to tell, and they were all in Poland. I thought I maybe should live there, too.
Would you say there’s a part of you that, even while you were working elsewhere, remained in Poland?
Yes, absolutely. Not just the country, but that part of the world. When I made documentaries— have you seen my documentaries?
Just Tripping With Zhirinovsky. Some of them are still tough to find online.
Oh, they’ve got to be somewhere on the internet, I’ve pirated them myself. But I tended to make these films in as well as around Poland, in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Fiction films, it’s another story. Even when England was my home, I always felt like an outsider. The films I made there were at an angle, not so English themselves. I preferred to tell stories about teenagers, or the working class, or foreigners. But in Eastern Europe, I am among my people. I wanted Cold War to have something to do with me, and my parents, and the world which I remember them telling me about. Both Ida and this one are steeped in that context.
Cold War is structured like a road movie, going from performance to performance. As you were managing and traveling with the troupe, to what extent did your experiences start to mirror Wiktor’s?
We’re such a tight-knit family, this production team, so things were not quite so tense. We felt more like a traveling circus. We did ten different locations in every corner of Poland, then to Paris, where we only did four days of exteriors because it was so expensive. Then, to stand in for Yugoslavia, we went to Croatia. Between the shoots, we’d have little breaks to regroup and maybe take a day trip somewhere. We weren’t exiles, busking it. I felt like, ah, like a ringleader! All filmmaking is its own journey, but this time, the adventure was of a literal sort.
The national musical revues of the ’50s had a very specific style that the film re-creates faithfully. What was your approach to mounting the larger-scale production numbers?
I benefited from a preexisting folk ensemble that already had their choreography worked out. All I had to do was find the shot. We borrowed the dancing and the routines, which were already traditional in that way. They had also done “Rock Around the Clock” before, with an Italian dance master who lives in Poland. Integrating them into the film was a fluid process. I really didn’t have to do much work!
Is there something intrinsically romantic about the postwar atmosphere? People picking themselves back up, restarting their lives, finding love …
I’d say so. After the war, there was a huge biological need to start living once more, to throw yourself into something emotional and meaningful. Crisis always brings feelings that we might bury in our everyday lives to the surface.
In the cinematography of Cold War, you often position your subject in a corner of the frame and leave lots of negative space. Is there something you find attractive about open spaces in your compositions?
Yeah, I like placing a person within their landscape. I guess I just like good photography? I think, How do I shoot this? As much like a photographer as possible. It’s not all that intellectual, not symbolic. There was a little of that in Ida, the headroom hovers above her in an intuitive, natural, and significant way. But here, a lot of it was less eccentric than that. I’m just trying to build depth, and in a frame where a face or a body takes up less of the screen, you can fit more into the background. Maybe not depth, there’s some shallowness of field, but a more complex frame. Above all, I wish to connect my heroes to the environment which they traverse. I don’t want to foreground the setting, but I do want to leave it plenty of room in the background to be present.
Aside from evoking the past, what advantage of shooting in black-and-white made you want to employ the technique again after Ida?
It wasn’t even supposed to create the feeling of an older film, it just felt right. How do you show Poland in the ’50s? There really wasn’t much color around. Everything felt gray, so then what color palette do you apply to that? I needed more contrast, and black-and-white has a starker, more dramatic look.
Coupling black-and-white photography with the clean, polished look of digital video makes for an unusual combination. Was there an emphasis on getting sharper definition that 35-millimeter film wouldn’t have made possible?
Oh no, we just didn’t have money! We didn’t have a big budget. I’d have liked to shoot on 35, but that would’ve been more expensive, and I like the freedom to do a lot of takes. But it wasn’t a compromise. We did tests at the beginning of preproduction, comparing 35mm to the Arri Alexa camera with different lenses, trying to match the visual aesthetic. Just the right amount of grain, how this color appears in black-and-white versus this color. That can be done in postproduction when you’re working on a digital camera. We had three cameras, three sets of lenses, and the look of 35mm just helped to guide us. This was how I was able to make the film feel large in scale, while keeping it inexpensive.
I recently talked with Hirokazu Kore-eda, who said that a lot of new doors had blown open for him after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. You landed the Best Director prize at the festival back in May, as well as the Academy Award in 2015; have you found that to be true?
I was offered a lot at the time, yeah. But to be honest, because I worked in England and my films there had a little success, I’d gotten calls from Hollywood before. Some of them were pretty mainstream, but I always prefer to control every aspect my films. Kore-eda writes his own stuff as well, I believe. I need to make movies that come from my own stories, on my own terms. It has to start with something that’s on my mind. All of my films came from somewhere inside me, even the documentaries.
That naturally poses the question of which part of yourself you invested in Cold War.
Everything. This time, literally, everything. I’m in the music, in the photography, in the romance, there are so many things coming from me and my parents. My only criterion when making a film is, “What do I like? What gives me a hard-on, artistically and narratively?” I want to feel a film on every level, total cinema. This is difficult to come up with, and even rarer for me to find in a script someone else has written.
Are you chasing something in particular when you make films?
When you’re directing, half the time you’re depressed and just trying to make this work in spite of practical issues that keep cropping up. But I need to know that I’m carried by some greater current, something to do with what I know or feel about the world. You’re giving over three years of your life, so there better be a current taking you somewhere. Filmmaking is not like engineering or plumbing. It’s not industrial. It’s psychological.
I’ve seen plenty of directors take jobs on bigger Hollywood films, and get disillusioned by a sort of assembly-line feeling.
I notice this, talking to journalists about who did the music, who did the editing, who did this and that. My collaborators are very important to me, but this also makes me realize how hands-on I am as a director. At the end, what the audience sees and hears is your responsibility. That’s sure how they’re going to judge you, as the one in charge of the whole film. This goes against the industrial process. Even when I’m involving other people, it’s still very personal. I don’t delegate.
I’ve read that your mother was a ballerina. Did you find that you learned anything from her when you were younger about life as a dancer that came back into Cold War?
Not really, I was only 3 when she gave it up. I remember seeing her at the fireman’s ball, dancing, but her scoliosis meant she had to stop. She had a grudge against ballet after that, feeling that if she couldn’t do it, she didn’t want to see it either. What really influenced me was the folk ensemble I’d been spending time with, it’s through them that I saw how this world functions. Incredible things, people doing full costume changes in seconds. This tradition of entertainment is kind of caught up in Polish history, our social nitty-gritty.
How would you assess the current state of Polish cinema?
Realism is popular, but I see it as an overfamiliarity with the nation. You should look at things against the grain, and in a timeless fashion. Do not allow yourself to be sucked into what’s already known very well, familiar discourse. Find what’s universal and beautiful in the unseen and unsaid. That’s how you transcend the obvious. Some of Polish cinema is stuck on the obvious, but by no means all. There’s a lot of film fund money coming in now, and we’ve got a strong generation of women directors coming up. We’ve got a very prestigious film school in Łódź.
And that’s where you studied?
Oh no, I left when I was fourteen, so I learned everything in England. I didn’t formally do film school, I learned to use a camera during filmmakers’ workshops. Lacking that training means I have to reinvent the wheel with each new film, and that, I like. I’m always learning. I see my mistakes, false steps, things that may have been well-intended at the time but just don’t work. It’s my own little film school.
This interview has been edited and condensed.