The Director of Oscar-Nominated 'Cold War' Is Surprised Americans Understand His Movie

cold war movie
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. | Amazon Studios
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. | Amazon Studios

Cold War, a stunning portrayal of two star-crossed lovers who meet again and again over the course of a few decades during one of the most volatile periods of European history, isn't the first time Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's work has made a buzz here in America. His mesmerizing 2013 drama, Ida, about a young Polish girl in the 1960s on the cusp of taking her vows to become a Catholic nun, handily won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award -- the first ever Polish film to do so. His newest film is nominated in the same category, its love story on an epic scale having swept away audiences in both Europe and the States. Pawlikowski talked to Thrillist about the power of folk music, black-and-white cinematography, and why Cold War is his most personal project yet.

Thrillist: You've said before that this movie is about your parents -- inspired by them, in a way. How close is it to what actually happened to them?
Pawlikowski: It's not close in details, but in structure, and psychologically, it's quite close. They did meet when she was very young and he was 10 years older, and seemed like an authority, and they did fall in love and quarrel. And then get married and split up again, and then left the country separately, married other people abroad, and then they met again, and got together again, got married again, managed to quarrel again. And in the end they died in a very similar way. But much later. The time span was 40 years of that kind of on-and-off relationship. But in the end they were very tired and destroyed by life, and they have nobody else but each other. The world changed, but they are there for each other, which is the essence of this very complicated and disrupted love story -- which is a great love story, but it doesn't look like a great love story while it's unfolding. And, for me, that became the matrix of all love stories in a way. I only thought of it as such after they died. They died in 1989 just before the wall came down, so they never saw the end of the Cold War.

The mechanics of the relationship and the characters are very similar, although my mother was a dancer, and she ran away to the ballet when she was 17. My father was no musician. So, I changed a lot of things. I added the folk ensemble as a kind of dramatic device to bring together two people who otherwise wouldn't have met, and also to use music as the third character in the story. So, that helped me remove it from the real story, which was much messier and more dramatically incoherent than this one. And also I compacted the story to 15 years so I wouldn't have to change actors en route, and I could make it more intense and more focused.

cold war movie
Amazon Studios

There is such a distinct musical throughline in this movie, with, especially, a lot of Polish folk songs. How did you choose the songs that went into it?
Pawlikowski: I chose them according to several criteria, but the main thing that I love is that I just think they're beautiful songs. I've always been kind of touched and haunted by them, the three main tunes anyway. And I also selected those particular three because they worked in every possible way. I could turn them into very basic source music, which you hear at the beginning of the film, and they also could work as jazz or chanson tunes. It's not so easy to find motifs which work in every possible way. The main song, "Dwa serduszka," ["Two Hearts"] which you hear sung by the little girl in the countryside slightly out of key, becomes this number performed by this big ensemble, and then it becomes the jazz chanson in Paris, first in Polish then in French.

The "Oberek opoczynski" a lady plays on an accordion at the beginning, and then you have it performed at a dance at the premiere of a folk ensemble, and then it becomes a bebop number in Paris, that Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) performs when we first cut to Paris. And then the third song, that becomes "Loin de Toi," at the beginning you hear it in the car when they're traveling. I thought it was wonderful to be able to use these throughout. Some of them, I think the audience is aware that it's the same tune. Others, I think, work subliminally.

And then there's a lot of other songs that are used dramatically, like the Gershwin piece, "I Loves You, Porgy," which becomes a production song, a song where they seek each other out and get closer during the singing lesson at the beginning of the film. And then "Rock Around the Clock," which had the opposite function, which drives a wedge between them, where Zula (Joanna Kulig) kind of responds to it and gets carried away by the music that's being played, which highlights the gulf between them and the age difference as well. They're 10 years apart. And so on.

The Russian musical, which Zula performs at her audition, is very funny. It's not the best for an audition for a folk ensemble, but that's what he likes. And it kind of tickles Wiktor's imagination. And then the so-called Yugoslav song is actually a very patriotic Serbian song, which I have them perform in Split, which is in Croatia. A little bit of mischief.

I didn't actually realize that there were three songs that were throughlines in this movie.
Pawlikowski: Yeah, they're kind of woven in, you know?

And it takes place over a few decades, too, so the music style would change.
Pawlikowski: Yeah.

cold war movie
Amazon Studios

Maybe it's the fact that it's in black and white, but the love story feels like a classic Hollywood drama.
Pawlikowski: Well, I didn't think of it as Hollywood at all, I always thought of it as a very central European story, with nothing to do with Hollywood. It's fantastically un-Hollywood, in a way. I didn't think Americans would quite... go with it. [Laughs] They don't have the sense of history. When you screen a film like this in Poland or in, I dunno, Germany, people really feel that, God, this is a world history movie, carrying what shaped our life and shaped our imagination. Whereas America lives in a slightly ahistorical world. But it still seems to work. People are responding to it.

There is a very American inability to understand what the Cold War meant for Europe.
Pawlikowski: All major historical disruptions, in other words. Government disorganization, or your country is split in half, or you're living under a totalitarian regime.

This film has gotten so much acclaim already: You won Best Director at Cannes, it's on the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language film [for which it is now officially nominated] --
Pawlikowski: I'm very proud of it getting the European Film Award. [Cold War was awarded Best Film at the 2018 ceremony.] For us, the European Film Awards are the Oscars of Europe. What's brilliant is that there's no promotion going on and nothing being spent on pushing it, so I was really thrilled that it did well at the European Film Awards. That, for me, was the biggest achievement.

cold war movie
Amazon Studios

What about it do you think has made it resonate so well with so many people?
Pawlikowski: It's the story. I mean, it's a love story. Although it's eccentric, I think most people can identify with some fragment of it. People can relate to all the ins and outs of the love story, I suppose, although nobody's love life is hopefully quite so dramatic. Maybe the music, maybe the images help, I don't know. My idea of filmmaking is making something magical and drawing people in to something that it might not be easy to get a hook in.

You've made two movies in a row that are in black and while. What has drawn you to that format?
Pawlikowski: It's not black and white I love. It just felt right for the films. It's the other way round. I don't decide to make films in black and white, I just intuit what is best for the film, and the world that I'm creating. And for both Ida and Cold War it felt like the most natural medium. And, having said that, it's a very different kind of black and white. It's more contrast-y in Cold War, and it's lit with a kind of contemplation. Ida was a bit of a prayer, meditation. This one is much more conflicted and contrasted and dynamic. And also the camera moves, which it didn't in Ida, except in two shots. So, it's horses for courses. The world I was trying to create, it really made sense in black and white. And also the late '40s and '50s weren't very colorful either. Whatever color palette I could come up with would have felt much more arbitrary and contrived than just black and white. But I'm not one of these filmmakers who thinks black and white bestows art onto a film. I wouldn't shoot a black and white if it was set in a colorful environment, like the '70s or '80s or now. I think that can be a mannerism.

And it makes sense, since it was certainly a very monochrome era in Poland and Europe at that time.
Pawlikowski: Yes! And how do you make that dynamic? The monochrome, the black and white, help me make it more colorful in a way. And I wanted it to be dynamic and colorful, with a lot of contrast. To me, for the films, it was natural to do both these films in black and white, and it's not an artistic device, not an arty gesture. It just felt right.

This interview has been edited.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky