Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a truly magnificent watch. Spanning several years during the Cold War in post-war Europe, the film is a love story that’s very personal to the director since his own parents served as inspiration. A couple meet and, despite their differences, together they navigate the tumultuous backdrop of politics and twists of fate on a truly remarkable journey of struggle and survival. Pawlikowski recreates a bleak yet romantic spirit of the era and Joanna Kulig is a vision to be behold as the singer Zula.
I had a brief catch up with the director to talk about shooting the film in black and white, collaborating with his DP, and how his parent’s inspired Cold War.
You shoot the film so beautifully. What was the choice and decision to shoot in black and white as your storytelling medium?
It was definitely not out of nostalgia for old movies. Nor for “artistic effect.” I wouldn’t have chosen it if the film was set in a colorful country, in a colorful period. The truth is that the Poland of the early fifties had little color, not in people’s clothes, nor in the buildings or hoardings. It was grey, green, brown and altogether rather murky. And I wanted to make the images as expressive and punchy as possible. There are drama and conflict in the film and I wanted the image and editing to reflect that. So black and white with quite a lot of contrast was much more effective here, indeed much more colorful and lively than if we went for the color palette of that period.
I’m in awe of the film’s photography. You collaborated again with Lukasz Zal. What was the dynamic of that collaboration?
We collaborated very closely and were quite symbiotic. Lukasz understood well the world I was trying to conjure up and we collaborated closely on each image; the elements in the frame, the framing and, the lighting. The production designers Kasia Sobanska and Marcel Sławinski were also very closely involved in this process.
Your parents served as an inspiration for the story. How did that come together for you?
I condensed and stripped down what was a convoluted messy story that stretched over 40 years to something simpler that lasted 15 years. I added music as the element that brought the heroes together, and kept them together and defined at all the different stages of their complicated love. Also, I told the story rather elliptically to avoid the biopic-y approach, where you need scenes and dialogues which merely serve to explain how we got from one place to another and the motivation. I focused mainly on strong moments, which could be told visually and musically, scenes which were rich enough to suggest or insinuate what happened in the intervening periods. I left a lot to the audience’s imagination and experience of life.
Audiences are more intelligent than screenwriters give them credit for. They are good at projecting themselves into stories such as this. There’s a thrill to recognizing or intuiting things for yourself rather than having it spoon-fed.
How did you work the idea of music into the story? It’s its own character and you hardly use any score music either. Talk about your decision making here.
In fact, there is no scored music at all. The pieces of music I chose were part of the story. Basically, I chose three songs from the repertoire of the folk ensemble Mazowsze, which like the fictional Mazurek was founded in 1949 and still exists today. I chose the songs not only because of their beauty and their lyrics (mainly about turmoils of love) but also because they lent themselves to interesting transformations and instrumentation.
They could be performed as “source music” by genuine folk singers whom I found around Polish provinces. They also work brilliantly as this kind of fake-lore performed by a choir. And they could also be molded into jazzy ’50s style chansons or bebop numbers. Which is where the brilliant jazzman Marcin Masecki comes in.
The other songs I chose to help dramatize the story and the relationship of Zula and Wiktor. For example, I took Gershwin’s “I love you Porgy” to create a connection between the future lovers during their first tête-à-tête, their first music lesson at the beginning of the film in 1950. I used “Rock around the Clock” to drive a wedge between them in the Paris of 1957. Then there’s also Gould’s Goldberg Variation that helps puts the whole story in a different perspective at the end.
Let’s talk about location scouting and finding the perfect location and house for the story?
It took half a year of driving around different areas of Poland to find the right locations. Not much is left from ’50s so it too a long time to find the bits and pieces around which I built the scenes.
You wrote the part of Zula with Joanna in mind. How did she first come onto your radar and how did that help craft your character?
I wrote the character independently of Joanna; the story has been gestating for quite a while. But from a certain moment in the writing, when I imagined certain scenes I realized that she’d be good at it. I’ve known Joanna for ages and worked with her — on small roles — on two previous films. I knew she had the right temperament and a timeless aura and that she could sing beautifully. When we started working I tweaked the Zula’s character to suit Joanna’s possibilities.