Director Pawel Pawlikowski on keeping two Poles apart in his exquisite new drama Cold War

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Paweł Pawlikowski follows his Oscar-winning Ida with the stunning Cold War, an epic romance set against the backdrop of Europe after World War II. Sumptuously shot in luminous black and white, it spans decades and nations to tell a love story that is as tragic as it is moving, and as transportive as it is honest.

Winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival 2018, Pawlikowski melds the personal with the political to exquisite effect. Set to a soundtrack that takes you from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland to the sultry jazz of a Paris basement bar, it’s a wistful and dreamlike journey through a divided continent - and a heartbreaking portrait of ill-fated love.

This writeup is of a Q&A Pawlikowski (himself a piano player and Polish expat) gave at the London Curzon Mayfair following an advance preview of the film in June. The film is out in select UK cinemas from 31 August and the Smoke Screen recommends you make some time for it: read the review here and savour some of those gorgeous monochrome stills below after the text.

How did the movie come about?

The story of this kind of couple I had been carrying with me for a long time. My producer tells me I had been trying to write it for ten years. But it was always a very technically difficult story to tell, as opposed to emotionally. How to tell a story of two lives separated over such a long period of time, such an unlikely tale of love that crosses borders and time? It was only after Ida that I felt it was really do-able; that I had the technical grounding, that I knew how to tell a complicated story simply and elliptically. Only then did I sit down with some friends and start writing it seriously. I started casting and location scouting when writing all 179 version of the script! The rewriting never stopped. But it has been with me for such a long time.

What about casting?

I knew Joanna Kulig (playing Zula) from ten years before and had worked with her, so I knew she could do it. With the male lead role it was difficult as I wanted him to be a proper musician and at the same time to be sort of an old-fashioned ‘pre-war leading man’ type from the older movies. It was hard to find that kind of guy. Strangely, Tomasz Kot (who plays Wictor) had never played that kind of role and never saw himself as that kind of character; a matinee idol, like I wanted. Beyond the look, we had to teach him to be a musician. He had to learn to conduct, and play piano. So it was long process to find the leading man and shape him into what became Wictor.

The music in the film is so distinctive…

I’ve aways liked music, and I play myself. In films, music as a character is very important to me. This time I knew music would be one of the ‘heroes’ of the film, it would be the glue in the narrative. Once I knew the film would be set in the world of the Polish folk ensemble, we knew where to start from. The film’s folk ensemble was inspired by an existing Polish folk ensemble, a group called Mazowsze, and I found three tunes from Mazowsze that I thought would be good central characters in the film. I took these tunes, and asked our authentic film musicians to learn them, and try to make them more authentic and basic, which they did. I also asked a great Polish jazz musician to turn them into jazz numbers; one of them therefore becomes a sort of bebop number in Paris, another becomes a song that Zula records in a recording studio later in the movie; it is actually a Polish jingle called ‘Dolina, Dolina' which appears in the beginning. Thus the music develops like the characters develop: it starts off as authentic and simple folk music, then becomes more composed and choreographed, then it becomes a propaganda tool, then, finally, we see cheesy pop songs. 

What do you think your recent films have said about contemporary Poland and how it evolved out of the Second World War?

Support for popular and folk art, which the Soviets supported as a kind of antidote to ‘decadent’ Western art - jazz and such  - they pushed it and it started to overlap with the ‘cult image’ of the Slav peasant. This whole kind of co-opting of people’s folk music to serve an ideology is not entirely alien to Polish society now. Today Mazowsze, the folk ensemble whose costumes and performers and music I borrowed and who were not doing too well financially, have now received huge subsidies from the government. They seem to be enjoying a kind of renaissance, and I’m happy for them. But there is a kind of a parallel going on now; in terms of what art gets subsidised. But you have to keep proportions; Poland is not totalitarian.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.