Pawel Pawlikowski

Interview by Frederic Beigbeder / Photography by Juergen Teller

Hobo #21—Paris & Warsaw, December 2018

Fréderic Beigbeder — Hello Pawel. I saw Cold War at the San Sebastian Film Festival and before the screening you came on stage to introduce your film to the audience. You said something like “don’t be afraid by this black and white polish movie! It’s about love and music.” Are you really scared to be misunderstood?

Pawel Pawlikowski — I’ve noticed that a subtitled film in black and white images, set in tragic times, tends to create an air of solemnity.  Especially with respectful festival audiences in the West. At screenings in Poland, audiences laughed a lot. The film has some jokes and funny lines… and generally irony. More importantly, I’ve noticed that all films – not just the good ones – work as kind of a crooked mirror, in which people see what they want to see. Mainly themselves, their experiences, their knowledge of life. It’s something to do with the representational nature of cinema. In the case of my films, this crooked mirror effect is even worse, because I tend to show the things as contradictory and ambiguous. Also, I leave a lot to the imagination, assuming that people’s imagination is like mine. Which is not always true, of course.

Fred — I understand what you mean. That’s why directors (and writers) have to explain their work in long interviews! But still you chose to shoot your last film in black and white like the previous one, Ida. Was it to pay a tribute to great classical love stories in cinema like Casablanca, The Apartment or The Shop Around the Corner

Pawel — Not really. I chose black and white because it felt right. For one thing I remember or imagine the world I show in Ida and in Cold War in black and white. My family albums from that time had something to do with that too. It was an intuitive choice. But intellectualising ex post, in Ida I was after a stripped down, abstract world, a sort of meditation/prayer. Black and white helped.  If there was any film reference, it would have been Vivre sa vie, the quality of its black and white, and its off centre and flat on compositions.  Definitely not an homage. In Cold War black and white also felt right, but for different reasons. Poland was not exactly colourful in early 50’s, so I couldn’t think of any colour palette that wouldn’t feel arbitrary or contrived. Black and white is a straight deal with the audience. I needed a punchy, contrasty feel to the film. Colours available wouldn’t do the trick, so it made more sense to go for strong and contrasty black and white. Much more contrasty and dramatic that in Ida, especially in the western section of the film, when we get to Berlin and Paris. The compositions much more “in depth” than in Ida. Cold War is also an intimate two-hander, but the context is much more epic, our heroes traverse different worlds, so there’s much more world behind them. To build the depth we often put the camera higher so there are more layers behind. In Ida I framed more eccentrically, often with a lot of head room, empty space which suggested something or other…

Fred — [laughs] I am glad because at last you can really talk about cinema.
I have directed two movies and there is a  sort of mystery with the circus of
promotion. It’s strange because a movie director can spend months touring festivals and premieres all over the world – and God knows you did it more than anyone after your Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture in 2015 – answering questions about everything but NEVER about the precise job of a man shooting images. It’s true that Ida and Cold War have very different looks. I find very interesting that you quote Godard about Ida because I would say that the party scenes and night sequence shots in Cold War reminded me of A Bout de Souffle… it is logical because the two movies are made with your memories of the past?

Pawel — The Parisian party scenes in Cold War were indeed inspired by memories of Paris, but from not so long ago. I lived there 2010-12 and experienced some salon life, among people who’ve read everything, seen everything, have an opinion about everything, and an impeccable taste too. And who seem generally rather satisfied with themselves. We shot all these scenes in a derelict building in Łód (Paris being too expensive) and tried to convey the slighly suffocating feeling with longer lenses, body language, bits of dialogue etc… As regards to the “promotion circus,” I’m in the middle of it right now. Cold War opens in the US in mid-December and then we are the Polish candidate for the foreign language Oscar. It’s pretty full on, industrial scale activity. You can’t be your moody artistic self in the States. They expect you to be positive, to communicate, to make an effort. Otherwise what the hell are you doing here? It feels as if things got more intense and crazy since Ida in 2015. May be it’s something to do with the arrival of Netflix with its mountains of cash and its craving for instant recognition and glory. It’s total war.

Fred — Great! I imagine you pretending to smile all the time to Hollywood reporters while presenting the story of an impossible love in contrasted black and white jazzy pictures. Heyyy! It’s like sooo amaaazing! It’s like Doctor Zhivago meets La La Land!! Do you enjoy this as a funny game, or a dirty job directors have to do, or a fucking nightmare? You are not allowed to answer the usual I sacrifice myself for my movie!

Pawel — All of the above.

Fred — Coming back to cinema: you told me (while we were eating a huge bloody beef txuleta in San Sebastian with the two most beautiful women on the planet) that Cold War contains a lot of special effects. Can you explain to our hobo readers why you need special effects to tell a story set in Poland Germany and France during the 50’s and 60’s?

Pawel — Of course I didn’t mean explosions, metamorphoses or gravity defying stunts. What I was talking about was the use of green screens to add things in post-production, which I needed to do quite a lot. How do you create the 50’s in today’s Poland. I’ve scoured the country high and low for locations and objects and found good ones, but a lot had to be added on in post-production. The longest green screen was for the long tracking shot when Wiktor crosses to the West in Berlin.

Fred — This sequence shot is absolutely great. In fact the “production design (the look of the film, choice of sets, costumes, art direction) is incredible! While I was watching, I was totally ecstatic, enjoying the quality of the images as much as the romantism of the characters. It’s been a long time since I haven’t seen such visual ambition. It’s the kind of movie you want to see again to enjoy all the details. Still, some critics say it’s too much… as if being so aesthetic was against naturalism and narration. What do you answer to those who are afraid of beautiful pictures? 

Pawel — I never thought the images were aesthetic. For me they were right, conveyed the essence of the thing and the emotion, economically and without great fuss. As did the sound, the music, the performances and the cuts. Critics have their own problems.

Fred — That’s true. You also did a lot of research for the music. From traditional polish folk songs to jazz. Cold War is (in a way) almost a musical… In Eastern Europe, when everything was forbidden, music (and vodka) were the only way to escape?

Pawel — Not exactly. Until 56 jazz and ‘formalist’ atonal classical music was forbidden. Music of the masses – so also folk music – was supported and heavily subsidised. The official doctrine of socialist realism ran « national/popular in form, socialist in content ». This is why Wiktor gets a job with Irena’s folk project. It’s a good gig while there’s nothing else going for him. I didn’t exactly research folk music. I did scour the country for good folk performers with interesting voices and faces. Then I picked three numbers from the repertoire of the Mazowsze folk ensemble, which has been around since the 50s – tunes I knew from childhood – and used them in every possible way. They are sang ‘roots style’ by the folk performers I found at the start of the film, then performed as fake-lore with orchestral arrangements by our fictitious ‘Mazurek’ and in the end the same three tunes become a bebop number and two jazzy chansons in the Paris section. The film is not a musical, but music is key throughout. It brings Zula and Wiktor together, keeps them together and comments on the different stages of their relationship. Not just the music they make, but also other people’s music. The seduction scene for a start. Wiktor plays some chords from Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy which Zula can’t have possibly heard before. But she correctly intuits the melody line. For him it’s a sign. The “Rock Around the Clock” in Paris shows the gulf that’s growing between them. She, ten years younger, gets carried away. He doesn’t even notice. The music highlights where we are in the story and also in History.

Fred — Another thing we talked about previously (I think it was in Guéthary during New Year’s Eve) is your courage with endings. Without spoiling your two last movies, I notice that they both have surprizing endings. Ida makes an unexpected choice at the end of the film… It’s also the case with Zula and Wiktor. Is it for you an artistic statement to show your freedom, to resist the temptation of happy endings?

Pawel — Not really. I don’t often do things to be perverse and or unpredictable for the sake of it. In Ida and Cold War the endings were sort of the reason why I made the films. They were there from the start, there was no other option, so courage is the wrong word. By the way a powerful woman in charge of film promotion at France Inter recently told me that she loved Ida but didn’t want her radio to support the film because she resented the ending on ideological grounds. It was reassuring to see that this kind of stuff happens not just in Poland and just on the Right. 

So if in Ida and Cold War the endings were there from the beginning, in My Summer of Love I arrived at the ending in the end. I was hesitating between having Mona actually kill Tamsin in the end or letting her go. I left that scene for the end, so I could make my Solomonic decision at the very end of the journey. The ending wasn’t exactly a happy one, but a kind of new beginning. The same was true in Last Resort. The Woman in the Fifth ends very badly for the hero but I don’t think any other ending was possible.
I don’t remember how Douglas Kennedy’s book ended.

Fred — I am glad you spoke about your first movies. The ones in colour! Do you agree that there is a gap between before and after Ida? What made you change your style so much? 

Pawel — Age, wisdom, time, boredom with cinema and its tricks, being on home ground (not just literally Poland), a deep sense of security and not giving a damn. If you look beyond external features, at which many critics stop at (camera work, handheld, colour, editing and stuff), you’ll discover there are quite a few things in common between these early films and the last two. Sensibility, themes, a few contradictory characters entangled in a mythic landscape, love, identity, faith… The most interesting films, not the best maybe, but the most original and interesting, for me are my docs in early 90’s. I can still watch them without feeling embarrassed. Twockers 1998 was hybrid and a transition from docs to early fiction Last Resort and My Summer… The Woman in the Fith was also a hybrid, and a film of transition. It moved me on from the naturalism of the previous films. It defied all genres and cultures and maybe broke too many rules, disappeared up its own arse and didn’t work for most audiences, but I like it and I’m glad I did it. It turned out to be a very therapeutic and educational exercise. It disappeared without a trace, but put me on the right path. It also made me realize I could never live and make films in Paris.

Fred — [laughs] Why? For a guy who loves la Nouvelle Vague… Just kidding,
I understand: You had to go back to your roots and find yourself?

Pawel — That sounds a bit cliché. But yes I found some calm, and the landscapes, images, sounds, characters and faces that have been with me all my life. By the way, I didn’t love all Nouvelle Vague, just some films. 

Fred — It’s interesting that your favourite old work” is your documentary because your next project is a sort of “follow up” to your encounter with Edward
Limonov. You are working on a film adaptation of Emmanuel Carrère’s book about this controversial Russian writer/agitator. How advanced are you and… will it be in black and white? 

Pawel — If I do do it, it won’t do it in black and white, which would make no sense for this story but I’m afraid it will be again with jumps in time i.e. an elliptic narrative like in Cold War, in strong synthetic scenes, without much explaining, and in graphic shots, which some critics won’t find to their liking. In other words, it won’t be a biopic or a book adaptation.

Fred — I hope you will do it! I love your style, long shots, construction with depth, and especially your  ellipses! I apologize for mentioning stupid (and rare) critics. They should be executed. Do you want to tell our secret funny story with Michel Houellebecq? What part did you offer him in Cold War?

Pawel — A mystery barfly who says some profound garbage as
Wiktor is waiting in a Paris cafe, hoping against hope that Zula will turn
up. Michel had a look at the script and said « I’m not needed here ». He was right of course. I scrapped the character and his monologue. It was Michel or nothing. I loved him in L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq.

Fred — Let’s talk about Poland now. The situation of your country (nationalism, controlled press, oligarchy, fake news) could soon be the same in France… as in Italy, Hungary and America… How do you feel to see the come back of oppression in Europe and the States? Does it mean the majority of the people don’t really like freedom but prefer to be ruled by stupid strong guys?

Pawel — Not exactly the majority. The ruling party came to power in Poland with some thirtry-three percent with a turnout of fifty-one percent. But it’s true that there’s a lot of fear and confusion out there and the world and its economy seems to be run by out of control impersonal forces, so people crave security and simple narratives. Poland is not as far gone as Hungary, let alone Russia and there’s a strong resistance to the government’s authoritarian urges. So some bad legislation has been rolled back by mass street protests and the intervention from the European Union, to which we still belong… The recent regional elections finally mobilised the population to go and vote and the ruling PiS party won only in small towns and villages. The government are trying to crudely manipulate culture, but haven’t yet managed to silence or absorb the media, as has happened in Russia or Hungary. They will keep trying, but it’s not a forgone conclusion they’ll manage. Fake news is another problem. The Populists have taken to another level, but it’s been with us for a while with the rise of the digital civilisation.

Fred — So now are you in Los Angeles waiting for your next Oscar? It is ironic that the polish cultural institutions had to support Cold War even though you are not exactly on their side… But you are used to this: Didn’t the same happened with Ida? Be careful in Beverly Hills: it is dangerous for Polish directors, Roman Polanski had several problems there… (dark humour, sorry) 

Pawel — I’m a good boy. And anyway much too jet-lagged and exhausted from talking to the media to do anything interesting. It’s hard work this promotion business. Much harder than last time around. It’s not just that there are some really good foreign films around this year, it’s about the staggering amount of money spent by Netflix. The rest of us have to do much more footwork to make up the ground. Brrr. Never again. The Polish film institute which gave us some money towards Ida and Cold War was still autonomous at the time. Its head was sacked a year ago. Right now its fate is in the balance. A very nice man from the New York-based Polish cultural institute is currently helping MOMI organise a retrospective of mine. I hope it’s a good sign and the guy doesn’t get the sack for his efforts. Yesterday I flew from Warsaw to LA on the Polish airlines LOT. To celebrate one hundred years of Polish independence, the inflight entertainment included a wide selection of best Polish films ever made. Most of which you wouldn’t have heard of. Ida, the only Polish film to ever win an Oscar, was not included. I wasn’t surprised, LOT is government owned.

Fred — [laughs and cheers] Except if you have something else to add (we didn’t talk about your parent’s influence on the characters but then you said it everywhere else), I think this could be an excellent ending for this interview – the kind you like: Funny and desperate. Kisses to Malgo, fingers crossed and many, many thanks for this cool dialogue across one ocean and one continent, between two glamourous hobos.