Pawel Pawlikowski follows up 'Ida' with an elliptical, haunting love story that spans two decades and three countries.
Sometimes, a kinetic film finds stillness only in its final moments. The last shot of Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War is of a field of empty grasslands. For a while, nothing moves. Then, the winds change; a gust whips through blades of grass, sweeping an invisible current. Time happens to all of us, this shot seems to suggest.
Time is the elliptical agent of Pawlikowski's film, about two ill-suited lovers whose passion bends at its passage. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor in 1950s post-war Soviet Poland, meets the gorgeous Zula (Joanna Kulig) when she comes in for an audition at his folk music academy. Though not the most technically talented vocalist at the open call, Zula has "something"—a charisma, a magnetism, a sense of cunning. Wiktor casts her. Thus begins a romance that will span a decade and a divided continent, from Poland to Germany to Yugoslavia to France, and then back again to the native soil.
Their story unfolds with little in the way of exposition. Pawlikowski employs a daring economy of storytelling, often dropping the viewer into a sumptuous scene that suggests a significant change from the what came before. There's not much to account for the intervening time, save for an evolution in music (here, folk music; there, sultry French jazz) or a shift in political winds (here, living in exile; there, collaborating with and surviving under the regime). Though they are incompatible in many ways—including temperament, political leanings, and ambition—the stoic Wiktor and the implacable Zula cannot seem to live apart. They cannibalize each other with their own desire. No matter where they are, they live in a permanent exile of the heart.
The tempestuous relationship is inspired by Pawlikowski's parents, also named Wiktor and Zula, who died in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
No Film School caught up with Pawlikowski prior to his film's screening at the 2018 New York Film Festival to discuss how shooting in 4:3 promotes precision and discipline, why he purges his films of "boring explanations" and "clichéd shots," and how, as a filmmaker, "you can get away with murder if you do it with conviction."
No Film School: The film looked gorgeous up on that large screen at Lincoln Center last night.
Pawel Pawlikowski: It filled the screen entirely. I've never seen it that way before.
NFS: You're a big fan of 4:3. You also shot Ida on that format. What do you like about it?
Pawlikowski: It's very good for portraits and for double portraits. It also promotes good discipline for the mise en scene, because you have to compose in depth. I have a tendency not to show too much—to limit the field of vision just to encapsulate the story. 4:3 helps me work with the power of suggestion. It creates a certain tension: what's outside of the shot?
But I don't really regard 4:3 as a very eccentric format. When I was making documentaries, I'd make them on the 16 mm, which was a similar format. It was, for me, the norm.
NFS: My favorite shot in the film is when Wiktor is leaning up against a large mirror at a party. At first, you think that it's a larger room, because you can see the entirety of the action in the mirror. It was a great subversion of expectations, and a creative way to show an entire set with one static shot.
Pawlikowski: That mirror was there on location. When we came to the location, I thought, "That would be a cool way of shooting the scene without any great pretension." You [can see] all the world of the scene in the shot, and the three actors interact within it. So that shot did a lot of jobs in one.
"I work the mise en scene around the image. It's not the camera that has to cover the action, but it's the action that has to fit in the image."
I tried to do that very often in the film—to contain a scene in one shot. But if you do that, it's a little bit [like walking] a tightrope, because you have to make the actors fire at the same time, and you have to have the background working, and you have to have the right frame. Therefore, it requires quite a few takes to get it right. There must've been 12 takes of this [party scene with the mirror], at least. You tweak the image all the time. Sometimes, it's something in the background that happens—some extras are not right, so you have to change them. It's a permanent process of sculpting.
But what we don't do is coverage. In a few scenes, there is a bit of coverage—like when we shot in the Ministry of Culture, we had to do a lot of shots to just tell the story. But usually, we compose shots to feel expressive and real and to achieve the grace of a good documentary shot. But to get there—to have that feeling that it's really happening—it takes sometimes 30 takes. So it is a paradox of creating life by killing life—by torturing people.
NFS: How do you work with your DP or cinematographer when you first get on set or look at the location?
Pawlikowski: We take photographs. Lukasz Zal is the DP. He is a good friend. Ida was his first job. He was a camera operator but had never shot a film. It became a very good relationship, where he was just learning the ropes a bit and suggesting and expanding his repertoire.
We're very symbiotic now. It's like we're like one person, in a way. From very early on, I involve him in the work. I let him read the script. We do a lot of visual research with production designers. We meet for dinner and just go through photographs and stuff. It's a very good, organic process with the whole team.
Pawlikowski: When we come on the set... well, we created the set, so it's not like we just turn up on set. But yeah, we just talk through it all. Some things are pretty clear on how to do. Others still are a bit fluid, so there's some openness. But to achieve the right shot for the scene, that's the key. I want the film to be photographic. I very often work the mise en scene around the image. It's not the camera that has to cover the action, but it's the action that has to fit in the image. For a DP, it's a great thing, because you really just have to focus on this one shot.
I do the framing. Sometimes Lukasz says, "Oh, maybe like this." Then, he does the lighting, and sometimes, I interfere in the lighting and say, "That's too much, too little, let's make it more silhouetted," or something. But nothing is delegated to the DP. Everything is a constant conversation.
The film is carried by imagery, and some dialogue. But the dialogue is an extra element. It's not the main source of story.
"I always know that when I actually shoot, I'm going to get rid of functional dialogue and functional scenes from the script and just focus on the ones that really carry the story."
NFS: That's one of the most interesting aspects of the film. In terms of story, it is very elliptical and imagery-driven. You take a leap of faith with your audience. How do you communicate those lapses in time, and then trust that viewers will imbue them with meaning?
Pawlikowski: You just have to go by your own instinct. And you have to make sure that what you do show resonates and is expressive—that the body language, the way they're dressed, and the little bits of dialogue carry some information. These things have to suggest what happened in the meantime, and how [the characters] changed.
There are, like, 150 versions of the script, because I kept rewriting it all the time. There isn't the script, you know? There is the story. The script is a moveable feast.
You write the worst version of the script—the most explicit—to raise the money. You send it to the financiers. But even that is not very long, in my case. It's, like, 60 pages, with a lot of space for cinema to happen, rather than text. In that version, there's a bit more linking between the scenes and a bit more dialogue that explains stuff. It's good for people, when they read the script, to actually get it. But I always know that when I actually shoot it, I'm going to get rid of functional dialogue and functional scenes, ideally, and just focus on the ones that really carry the story.
Of course, I don't 100% know it's going to work. It is a leap of faith. But I think, "What have I got to lose? It's not a commercial film." If what's onscreen is magnetic enough, and the actors are magnetic, and the lighting, and the music... then people go with it. I would, anyway. You just judge by yourself, you know? In the end, the only criteria are your own taste and experience. If I like it, then there's a certain number of people who will also like it. That's the bottom line.
No Film School: On set, how do you distinguish between the overtly functional scenes and identify which scenes aren't working?
Pawlikowski: When you read the script, you think things like, "That's crap. That's good. Let's get rid of this and maybe invent something else that condenses these three bad scenes into one." The same thing happens when you shoot. You shoot the scene, and go, "It's not working. Let's not pretend it's working. Let's think. Okay, it worked in rehearsal maybe, but now that we're here, something's changed. So let's reframe it. Let's take some lines away from the actors." And by "not working," I mean, do I like it? Does it work for me?
The screenwriting happens in the filming. My producer always jokes that I write the script with the camera. It's an exaggeration, but there's truth in that. I basically start treating my film as a kind of documentary. Of course, it totally isn't, because everything's fake, and you have 30 takes of something to actually make it feel real and expressive.
"I remember shooting it and saying, 'This is so lifeless. How could I have come up with this thing?'"
I was shooting a lovemaking scene in the theater for the beginning of the film. It's the first time [we see them have sex]. In the film itself, we cut straight to them fucking in the toilet, after they are looking at each other. But originally, I did a different scene there, where they're in some kind of props room, and they approach each other. I remember shooting it and saying, "This is so lifeless. How could I have come up with this thing?"
I ultimately decided that all we needed was just a quick, dynamic fucking scene in the bathroom. So after five takes of this [props scene], I said, "Let's find some other location here quickly." We found a train. Of course, the actors have to be flexible and ready for changes, because there's a completely different mood for that scene now.
Basically, I just react to the live material. Because that's what's going to be onscreen.
NFS: Much of the emotional valence of the film rests on the actors' shoulders. When you cast Victor and Zula, what were you looking for?
Pawlikowski: Well, with Zula, I knew that Joanna was pretty close to what I needed. She could sing. She had the personality. She's charming. She had something. I wanted the couple to be a bit like my parents, in the sense that she's blonde and energetic, and he's tall, dark, and phlegmatic. So on many levels, she worked.
Pawlikowski: When I looked around for lead actors, Thomasz Kot had that timeless quality—or, rather, the quality of a man who could be from the '50s, who was born before the war. He was manly, but normal. Not macho. It is very difficult to find leading men [like that] today...a Gregory Peck-type.
Thomasz is a good actor. He never acted in this way before, so it was a process. Nobody spotted him as a leading man in Poland, strangely. He did a lot of TV. In films, he played these contorted junkies or musicians who are troubled. His best role was of an alcoholic heart surgeon. He's really, really intense. In Cold War, though, he has an open face and a haircut from the '50s. Lighting accordingly, he suddenly looks really charismatic.
"That shot did a lot of jobs in one. I tried to do that very often in the film—to contain a scene in one shot."
NFS: One of the most striking elements of this film is that we never see the couple happy. What truth does this point to about the nature of love and desire?
Pawlikowsi: I wasn't really showing a truth. I was just showing this couple. You know? I wasn't making a statement about love.
That's where the inspiration of my parents comes in because they had that kind of relationship. They were never entirely happy, and yet, they were the man and the woman of each other's lives. By the end, when they got finally together and they were too tired to fight, they were the most lovely couple. There's this moment where you can realize that the world changes. Your children grow up. You move countries, whatever. But there's this other person who's the only person who knows you and who's there for you. The other magnetic pole. It's an interesting and beautiful thing. Sometimes, something doesn't look like love, but in the end, you think, "Okay. Actually, it was love."
But I think in today's world, it's slightly unthinkable, this kind of thing. Something happens when couples spend a lot of time absent from each other. You exist even more in the imagination. You imagine things which are not entirely true. When you actually meet again, you go, "He's not quite the guy, or she's not quite the girl. She's such a pain in the neck." Yet, you have history together. That's a key thing—to have history. It's like how you have some friends who you have ups and downs with, but in the end, you have history. You trust them. You know they're disastrous, but in a world where everything changes—where everything is multiple choice—to have history with someone is a huge thing.
NFS: Especially living in exile, I can imagine it's important to share that common history.
Pawlikowski: Yeah, totally. I remember that with my parents.
NFS: How did you work with the two actors to bring their complex relationship dynamic to life?
Pawlikowski: They're both very sensitive people. Joanna is from a traditional Catholic family. She's not the kind of actress who just gives herself totally. I respect that in her a lot. Thomasz is quite sensitive, as well. It was a long process to bring them together. I asked them to do some dance lessons, just to spend time together. They became very, very close over a period. The more time they spent together, the more they became like brother and sister, a bit. They just became very familiar around each other. They knew each other's spouses. It was worth spending time to get there.
Time is a huge sculptor, I think. We shot the film over six months, but not every day. We had 55 days. Just spending time with your film is a huge plus...getting bored with some things and realizing that they're not very good, and other things become better ideas.
It's the same as in this love story, you know? Time is the hero. Sometimes, it's in your favor; sometimes, it's against you. But if you manage to use it well, then it's huge.
"Like in Ida, I decided to make Cold War a photo album, in a way—everything in interesting shots."
NFS: Speaking of time, was there anything that you learned from working on Ida that you brought to this film in particular?
Pawlikowski: Yeah, the ellipses we spoke about earlier. In Ida, there are quite a few scenes which were written that I didn't actually shoot because they were boring. Like when somebody explains something, I just cut from one thing to the next, and it still works. There's a car crash scene in Ida, for example. We're thinking, "Well, do we shoot a car crash where you see the crash? Or do we just cut from her driving absentmindedly to a horse dragging a car out of a ditch?"
There's also a scene in Ida with some women in the bar who don't know how to find the guy they're looking for. I originally had the scene where she goes to the barman, and they talk: "Oh, he lives in such and such place." But all we needed is this: She heads for the bar, and then we cut to them already at the address of the guy. Because why is it interesting that he tells them where this guy lives? If you just string shots together and have clear intentions—you know where it's going to go—then you can cut straight to the next good bit, rather than have boring explanations.
I learned not to spend time on cliché shots—on shots that you've seen hundreds of times. In American movies, they do it so well, but you don't need it. In Cold War, I took that liberty of telling a story photographically even further. Like in Ida, I decided to make Cold War a photo album, in a way—everything in interesting shots.
Pawlikowski: Ida was definitely a good turning point—a purifying moment. I really didn't think anybody would watch it, so I thought I'd go all the way, and I'd do it as erratically as possible. See what happens. Then, after all this success, I think, "Okay, you can get away with murder if you do it with conviction." But Ida was really some kind of point zero of cinema. Like anti-cinema.
In Cold War, there's a little bit more camera movement. It's not a contemplative film like Ida. The heroine is full of energy, so it would be stupid to not to convey it with camera moves. Plus, there's music and dancing, which needs some kind of enhancement from the camera.
Cinema comes from the word kinetic: cinema, movement. Ida had no movement whatsoever, whereas this one makes a step towards the audience more. Plus, it's a more dynamic story.
You just realize that you can trust the audience. You can do what it is you like doing and rely on the fact that if you do it consistently through the film, from the very beginning, people will enter your game. People will learn your film.
"Whenever music appears, it's part of the story. It really hits you, like an appearance of a character in the film."
NFS: Talk to me about making music cinematic.
Pawlikowski: I did not think, "Oh, this is cinematic music." It's just part of the story.
I didn't want any composed music. In Ida, there wasn't any music, which is why I wanted the sounds to be interesting.
[On Cold War,] we spent a lot of time working on sound. Then, whenever music appears, it's part of the story. It really hits you, like an appearance of a character in a film.
This jazzy music, of course, you always associate with cinema. But no, I didn't think in these terms, "How do I make music cinematic?" Once I decided it's set in the folk ensemble world at the beginning, then it was pretty straightforward. I shot that fairly documentary-style. They're just scenes. You know? Scenes where music plays a part.
NFS: How did you decide which pieces of music to include?
Pawlikowski: With "I Loves You Porgy," when [Victor] plays the chords... for me, that was an interesting way of bringing the couple together, like a seduction scene of sorts, without much dialogue. He does the scales with her, and then sees whether she will intuit what the melody could be. He obviously knows Gershwin, which was very unusual in Poland. I mean, he obviously had a previous life abroad. She'd never heard Gershwin, but she intuits what the notes are. That was like a conversation between them. It's what brings them together properly for the first time.
Pawlikowski: "Rock Around the Clock" I chose just because it was 1957, more or less, and she's bored out of her wits and a bit drunk. There's a huge gap between them. He's 10 years older. He doesn't react to it at all, whereas she just feels the energy.
Then, that schmaltzy number at the end I chose because it shows where she is. It's tawdry pop music, and she became a starlet under the protection of this guy connected to the Ministry of Culture. He could see there's been a complete decline in her fate as a singer. It was a fun song, but absurd, especially with these Mexican bands.
The main three songs in the film were very good motifs to give to these primitive folk performers at the beginning and then turn into jazz. I asked them to perform them first. The woman on the accordion with pedals, at the beginning...that makes a really good bebop tune when we first cut to Paris.
Music was a big deal throughout. Thomasz spent a lot of time with this pianist to adopt his bearing, and to learn a few things on the keyboard. Also, this pianist lent us his hands for the shot where [Victor] plays "The Fantasy" by Chopin. It was his hands, not Thomasz's.
Then, there's that main song, which the little girl sings at the beginning, slightly off-key. She was the girl I found at some folk festival, but she never sang this song. I gave her this song to sing in a simple way. She does that quite sweetly with little false notes. Then, we have that song sung by the ensemble, first Acapella, and then the orchestra comes in. Then, we have it sung again in Yugoslavia when he's whisked off by the state security guys. Then, we have it sung in a nightclub. Then, she sings it in French on the record. She especially resents when she has to sing it in French. That's the final straw, in a way.
You have this song, like, six times in the film. It reflects where we are all the time in the story—where the relationship is. These musical motifs happen throughout the film. They glue it together.