Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a sweeping saga of a doomed romance that crisscrosses 1950s Europe, comes five years after the release of his Oscar-winning Ida. Two superb films in, Pawlikowski has found a niche in black-and-white historical drama set in his native Poland, where he moved after spending his career in the UK. But Cold War’s rich, jazz-soaked love story has a different beat to the relatively austere Ida, and it’s notched up rave reviews since its premiere in Cannes.
The former academic, dressed in a suit, jeans, and sunglasses hanging from the top of his T-shirt, is erudite but combative as we meet at the San Sebastián Film Festival, pushing back on what he calls simplistic interpretations of Ida and Cold War, as well as offering his thoughts on populism in Europe and Poland’s controversial Holocaust law.
The Film Stage: Cold War won Best Director at Cannes. What would you say has connected audiences and critics with it?
Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s hard to say, but I imagine it’s a powerful story in all its ambiguities and contradictions. It’s a very unusual, eccentric story, so I didn’t realize how many people would still find their way into it. A lot of people have come up to me and said “It’s exactly like my story.” But no it isn’t — it’s Cold War, it’s communism, it’s exile. But they still find something of their own fragmented love story, perhaps of the impossibility of love.
So is Cold War a metaphor that says love is ultimately doomed?
No. This is a very specific story. It’s not that doomed, you know. There’s a kind of happy ending! But the fact is that we expect something absolute to come out of love–traditions from the troubadours to 19th-century literature. It’s an interesting dramatic problem because love never is absolute; it always goes through stages–different contexts, different people. We’re always disappointed. Time corrupts things. Absolute love is the domain of the divine and in human terms the quest for something absolute always leads to comic and tragic effects.
Even today, internet dating trains us to think perfect love is achievable…
This is an era when so much of the emotional life happens in the digital sphere. A lot of people don’t look at each other–only on telephones and they meet on the internet. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t love. But it’s difficult to capture and show it in a form. Whereas in a time when there were fewer distractions and people had to face each other it’s slightly more interesting to show.
I think that these days couples don’t last very long. So it’s so difficult for that couple to survive all the twists and turns and the obstacles thrown in their way — political, technical, exile, absence from each other. They kind of enhances this thing. Love.
The thing is I’m not sure what love is in Cold War–at no point are they very happy! There are moments where it’s nice, but nothing is ever satisfying and pure. It immediately gets corrupted and veers off into something else. It’s only at the end of the story when they have no more strength to fight that they find themselves alone and nobody can understand them as well as each other and you can say that was a great love story. That was love. But it didn’t look like love.
But you do structure it in a way to glimpse at what looks like love…
It’s a little bit of an experiment to make a film that’s so elliptical. I’m going to appeal to some audiences and not others because some people want to have explanations and to fully understand what the author had in mind and why this person did exactly this. It’s a little bit tiring in especially big films like a biopic. They have fifty years explaining how you get from A to B, and they introduce artificial cause and effect just to make sense of what happens. She did this and this led to that. I always get frustrated by that. Because I know in life there’s no one motivation for anything and everything you do has many different consequences. But I’d rather not go into that and show you elements you can feel the truth of it. You fill in the missing links.
I think I would like such a film–that’s why I make it. Exactly the film I like where a lot is left unsaid but it’s suggested. Where there are gaps for me to imagine. When everything there is not there to explain but to make you experience–and the explanation you have to provide.
What was the process of bringing those strands together and of constructing a movie out of it?
I had this notion of this couple splitting up, fighting, and moving countries–I’ve had this idea for years. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote several treatments on my laptop in about 2006, but it was a bit close to my parent’s real story. I could never do that because it’s too messy and I know too much about them.
So it was slowly maturing and I wrote another version and put it aside–which I did with Ida by the way. I stared at Ida ten years before [it was released] and put it aside. And then there’s a moment when you’re ready to do it. I’ve got the tools to tell the story. And that moment occurred after Ida, when I realized you could tell a complicated story quite elliptically. Because Ida is quite elliptical too but not as extreme as this one.
When I was shooting it I cut a lot of scenes from the script [like Ida] and it still made sense. You could trust the audience to make sense of it. And also I came across the folk ensemble and music became the integral part. I thought “OK, I’ve got the framework now–they meet through the folk ensemble. They fall in love with the music, the music keeps them together.” And suddenly it started falling into place.
Surprisingly, it didn’t limit the audience too much. And what really surprised me is in Poland masses of people went to see it, even though it’s black and white and it’s elliptical.
But you’ve had problems in Poland and been criticized by politicians there, how are you and other artists coping with increased populism?
The position of artists in a little bit under pressure. But it’s not terror. Nobody gets arrested or stopped from making films if you can find the money. Populism anywhere is anti-culture, reducing everything to primitive narratives which is the opposite of what art should be. Art should be showing the beauty, the complexity, the ambiguity the paradoxical ambiguous nature of the world. And find form for it. So inevitably populism–and most politicians are at some level populists–they try to co-opt art often.
Ida was an international success, won the Oscar [for Best Foreign Language Film], and it coincided with an election campaign where the right-wing party [current President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party] was trying to galvanize support. So they used Ida quite cynically as a tool. They said: “Look there’s this film, it’s very anti-Polish. You haven’t seen it ‘cos it’s black-and-white but we’ll tell you it is very boring. There’s a Polish guy who kills Jewish people.”
But the film isn’t about that. They took one element one of very complex situation and said: “Don’t bother to see the film, but believe us, it’s very anti-Polish. And why is it doing very well? Well, there’s a huge conspiracy against our country. And why is it doing well in Hollywood? Well, look at who’s in charge in Hollywood, nudge nudge.”
So suddenly it became like an election campaign tool. And they started this petition against the film which was signed by more people than saw the film in Poland. When they came to power it won the first Polish Oscar so they had to deal with it. But the prime minister said, “We don’t know why it won the Oscar, it’s a shitty film.”
State TV invested in the film so they had the right to show it a few times. And then one day they took it off the schedules. And there was an outcry from the filmmaking community, so they put it back on the schedule, but they preceded it by a 15-minute discussion by two right-wing guys. One of them said, “this Pawel should be stripped of Polish citizenship.” And, by the way, the film you’re about to see which we have to show, is anti-Polish film. And it’s a Jewish point of view. So everyone who watches this film will know how to watch it.
Now they’re probably going to win the next election, so they don’t have to be so aggressive. But this film [Cold War] has done incredible box office and it’s got [Poland’s submission for] the Oscar nomination so they’re kind of nicer to me… But I try to stay clear of any kind of politics.
Do you condemn the government’s controversial “Polish death camp” law?
I thought the formulation “Polish death camps” was moronic. I was fighting against it myself. What the fuck? They were German death camps in Poland. So I understand certain irritations totally with the misrepresentation — not that there were any ideological reasons, I think there was just stupidity. People say that stuff because in America they have no idea about history anyway.
But Ida is a film about showing that Poland had a role in the Holocaust…
Not Poland, just this one guy. It shows all sorts of other things. The communist state prosecutor [played by Agata Kulesza, who also stars in Cold War] has a role in condemning people to death. And I didn’t say Poland I was saying this one guy killed — but also he saved someone. He took this girl, Ida, to the monastery.
I never do anything one-to-one. Life is full of mysteries and paradoxes and I want that to be known and to be shown. People in the West who interpreted my film as a film about Polish guilt they’re as stupid as people in Poland who interpreted as an anti-Polish film–it’s reductive. As a state, Poland didn’t cause the Holocaust. Ida is also about an existential side of life, morality in general; what does it mean to be Catholic, to be guilty? You know, I didn’t phrase it in journalistic terms; I didn’t phrase it as a simplistic narrative. I was as pissed off with some Western journalists who reduced it to that as I was with Polish politicians.
Your use of Polish history begs comparison to Andrzej Wajda…
With Wajda, I still feel he’s teaching me about history, whereas I’m trying not to do that. Even in Ashes and Diamonds, which I love, I know what he’s trying to tell me. But yes, I mean if you tell a Polish story set in the 50s or 60s, inevitably you talk about history. I’m trying not to foreground history, I’m trying to show how history affects people but I’m not trying to fill in any historical gaps or inform people.
That’s why in Ida with that peasant killing — it’s not like I want to draw attention that it happened. Of course it happened. It would have happened in most countries, to be honest. But I wanted to deal with other existential problems–and by the way this occurs. And the same in Cold War, dealing with the mechanics of the love story, which is very complicated Two people, very ill-suited to each other: temperamentally, socially, culturally, but all the time history affects them. It affects the relationship. So definitely I like telling stories that are steeped in history.
That’s why I stopped making films in Britain because I didn’t feel historical context. Whereas Polish history, my history, my parents history is always in the back of my head as something I have to deal with at some point. But I don’t want to make a film about history because that inevitably leads to a reductive thing — characters become illustrations of something.
That sounds like a criticism of British cinema…
No, British cinema is great. But it’s very sociological. It’s about class. It’s history in terms of furniture and costumes and royal family. The royal stuff is actually interesting. But what I mean [I want to talk about] is more immediate history, not the royals or an Upstairs Downstairs kind of thing.
I want to make films about people who were crushed by history, who had to behave decently when it was impossible to be decent. Or they had to make compromises. History that strangles you. History of exile. In exile how does a relationship survive exile? How do you find your bearings? How do you not lose your character?
Cold War screened at the San Sebastián Film Festival and will be released in on December 21.