Star-Crossed: Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War' is a turbulent, decade-spanning love story

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The Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski delivers one of the most romantic films of the decade with Cold War (from Amazon Studios). But he doesn’t wish the kind of impossible, fractured love at the heart of his latest upon anyone. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Januz Glowacki, with the collaboration of Piotr Borkowski, Cold War’s breathtaking ’50s and ’60s-set romance evolves over 15 years, across several countries and through various personal and political tragedies—it is a far cry from saccharine.

Winner of the Best Director award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where Cold War debuted in competition, Pawlikowski was after a tale of passion that felt like an incessant battle. “And the beautiful thing is, by the end of the film, you think that was a great love story, [even though as it unfolds] it’s mainly struggle,” says the writer-director during an interview at the New York Film Festival, where Cold War continued its international journey. “I wouldn't recommend this kind of [love] to any of my friends or to my children. But watching it, you feel the pain. Maybe we sometimes confuse pain with romance. And that’s the stuff that becomes immortal.”

Indeed, the director of Ida and My Summer of Love evokes that classical feeling of love’s painful eternality with Cold War, Poland’s official entry in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Through the post-war romance of educated, sophisticated musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and mysterious, immensely talented singer Zula (Joanna Kulig)—an opposites-attract couple from different sides of the tracks whose relationship  spans Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia and France and is marked by a series of betrayals—Pawlikowski dramatizes their constantly changing spiritual bond and the outside factors that challenged it.

“Their path is ridden with obstacles, and identity—not national identity, but how they perceive themselves [in a foreign world]—becomes one of the hurdles. When [Zula] is taken out of that comfort zone in Paris, she feels awful because she doesn't feel confident. So she becomes arrogant on the one hand, which is totally understandable. Paris has a salon intelligence that [feels] a bit suffocating after a while. We all know that feeling. [It was the same] when I was in the West. When I first came, [people were] telling me, ‘Oh, this is how the telephone works.’ So they assume these things and they have no idea. A lot of the audiences in Poland have been in that situation—it's a country of big emigration and return.”

Beyond the struggles of impossible love, Pawlikowski’s pristinely orchestrated black-and-white film lands on an age-old idea: Throughout the passage of life, there is that one person for everyone, one person who means something real to you and knows you inside and out. “Everything can change and this other person, who [might not] make you happy (at least in an American sense), is still the only other person on the planet,” Pawlikowski says.

Though timeless and universal, this story is immensely personal for Pawlikowski, as the movie’s couple is broadly based on the filmmaker’s own parents (also named Wiktor and Zula), who passed away in the late 1980s shortly before the Berlin Wall came down. “So I know that feeling,” he continues. “I could see my parents having something that disastrous. This couple [in the film], in the end, just has each other. [And yet] they fuck everything up. They're in a country where they have absolutely no hope of ever being happy. And they don't actually get along so easily.”

Like the couple in Cold War, Pawlikowski’s parents led stormy lives, but their real story was very different in detail. For starters, their “hectic, messy saga” took place over a 40-year period as opposed to the shortened timeframe in the film. “And they weren't musicians,” Pawlikowski, an only child, adds. “My mother was a ballerina when they met. She ran away from home to the ballet at 17, and he was 10 years older, so that [part is] similar. Then they got together, they were in love. Then they betrayed each other and separated, and then they got married and had me. And then they got divorced and left the country separately.” After that, the real Zula married an Englishman and Pawlikowski ended up in England with his mother, while his father moved to Germany. “Then they met again and got married again, but still managed to fight and separate,” he appends. “They [eventually] died together just before the Cold War ended in 1990.”

For quite a while, Pawlikowski didn’t know how to transform his parents’ epic history into a film. One of the people he shared the idea with was Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who is also in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race with Roma (which Pawlikowski saw and loved). “We're very good friends. We talk about each other's stories a lot.” He and Cuarón discussed his parents’ tale when he was at the Telluride Film Festival for Ida in 2013. “When you tell a story to a friend over a beer, you simplify and stylize it in a way that [makes you figure out] the way it should be told. You suddenly realize you're dropping stuff out, editing it in your own head already. Alfonso said, ‘You should just do it.’ But I've been living with this tale for 10 years in different shapes. Ida was told quite elliptically too. I realized I don't have to be so literal about stories. I can take liberties and leave gaps, as long as the stuff I show resonates and gives you enough clues into what happened before or after.”

With that philosophy, Pawlikowski pared down dialogue and scenes delineating how to get from A to B. “If the purpose [of dialogue] is information, it’s always dead. There's no life in it. With age, I'm more and more impatient with films. I just watch these films and I go, ‘I get it, just move [on] and show me something interesting.’”

Applying that elliptical approach, Pawlikowski takes the audience on various time-spanning journeys: the evolution of the central relationship; the shape-shifting tunes—the authentic Polish folk music we enjoy in the beginning segues into bebop, jazz and rock ’n’ roll later on in Paris—and finally, the changes in post-war Europe. The filmmaker insists he didn’t intellectualize these elements, as he didn’t want to make a historical drama. Instead, he kept his focus on the couple, the different worlds into which they stray and the identities they grow into and out of; the rest followed. “I wasn't terribly theoretical about it,” he explains. “And because I didn't actually foreground any of that, [the film] works much better.”

Pawlikowski purposely avoided overexplaining the politics and culture of the day and instead creates an atmosphere that directly impacts the lives of flesh-and-blood people. “I just didn't want to show how awful and murderous Stalinism was—and it was. I just wanted to show how it deforms all behavior and relationships.” To maintain the mood he envisioned, he decided to stick with some of the creative choices he previously made with Ida: the unadorned honesty of black-and-white and the square Academy ratio. And he partnered again with Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal. “I couldn't imagine any convincing color palette for Poland of the ’50s. Black-and-white seemed much more to the point. And more colorful, in a way, because you can do a lot with black-and-white through contrast and lighting. Poland in the early ’50s was gray; people didn't wear any colors. It was like, ‘What do you do with color if there's no color?’ It would have felt arbitrary and contrived. And I like the Academy aspect ratio; it's very good to compose in depth rather than in width, good for portraits. It goes with my general tendency to not reveal too much, just suggest more than show.”

In condensing the timeline of his story, Pawlikowski considered what could be told visually and musically. He continually edited the film, treating it as a kind of documentary. “I forgot there was a script and focused on scenes that were really punchy, that had life in them.” He continues, “I wanted to start in the middle of nowhere in Poland with some authentic folk music, where [Wiktor] is in a position of power [in a folk ensemble] and she's scamming to get in. Then the political takeover of the folk ensemble [called Mazurek, based on the real-life Mazowsze] by the Ministry of Culture has dramatic impact—Wiktor realizes that he's got no future in Poland. And then there's a jump into a whole different world in Paris, where bebop is the thing. And then by ’57, there was already ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ Whereas in the Poland of the ’60s, where socialism became a little bit less bloody, less of a reign of terror, pop music was allowed. We see a glimpse of that when [Zula] sings ‘Baio Bongo.’ So you have these different worlds, but it's always in [the context] of their relationship.”

Naturally, casting was the most crucial piece of the puzzle. Zula had to be able to sing, and both characters needed to convey a classic movie star appeal with an aura not defined by today’s standards. “And it's not about makeup and stuff. It's just that humanity's changing and [through] mass media, osmosis or mimicry, people are changing. Men especially are very different from way back, but women are too,” Pawlikowski contends. The Liv Ullmann/Catherine Deneuve-esque stage and screen actress Joanna Kulig, whom Pawlikowski worked with in Ida and The Woman in the Fifth and compares to Marilyn Monroe, immediately had the timeless quality the filmmaker sought. “She could be a ’50s, '60s-era [star], no? Because she didn't have sarcasm in her, and her character does, I tried to call up Lauren Bacall as a model for how to deliver [some] lines. She has many faces in the film, so it's great. And it was the same with Tomasz, even though people in Poland didn't spot [this side of him]. He never played that kind of a leading guy—he played junkies, troubled rock musicians or tortured heart surgeons. Nobody spotted it. So you just have to give him the right haircut, light him in a certain way, and there he is, a really good-looking guy, manly in an old-fashioned way.”

Asked what his parents would have thought of Cold War had they been around to see it, Pawlikowski can’t help but get a little self-deprecating. “They'd probably be bored stiff, I don't know. I probably wouldn't have made it if they were around. I would have been too self-conscious about it.” Looking at the future, he says he will keep filming in Poland, unless the current government somehow worsens. “There are more stories that I have to tell [over there]. I don't think it's a question of nationality; it's more of my baggage. The key thing is to have something to say, and then the form and the environment will fit in.”