INTERVIEW: PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI
This interview was originally published in Spanish magazine Miradas de Cine and can be found here.
In the five years since its release, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Idahas become an essential modern classic. So when his follow-up film was announced to be another black-and-white, 4:3 period piece set in Poland, the cinephile hype seemed quite justified. Cold Waris every bit as masterful as we all hoped, as Pawlikowski continues to explore post-war Central Europe with a mix of formalistic precision and poetic beauty that is unparalleled in today’s cinema. I met up with him for a long conversation at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where ColdWaris being presented.
I wanted to start by asking you about the brutal ellipses that Cold War is structured around, which allow a film that spans more than 20 years to be told in less than 90 minutes. Where they always in the script, and where they always so long? And do you as a screenwriter, during your process of developing and re-writing, feel the need to know (or even write) what would have happened to the characters during those long gaps?
Yes, I need to know, for sure. And the same goes for the whole backstory of the characters, I need to know as much as possible. And I do a lot of work in this direction while I’m writing.
There were always ellipses from the first drafts, that was the approach, but I had some additional scenes in the script which filled in some of the gaps, because at some points of the process I got a bit nervous that people wouldn’t understand some things, that we were going a bit too far. But ellipses where always completely essential to this, they’re actually the whole reason we could make this film, because there’s no other way we could have told such a big story on our budget. I had this arrogant idea that actually, this was a story that existed outside of the film, and that I as the director decide, with my own judgement, what bits of the story I want to show the audience… but I’m not giving them the whole thing, rather giving them the privilege to see some key moments of a story that probably has many more key moments that they will never get to see.
We can’t really discuss the ellipses of the film without talking a bit about editing. You have an editing style, also in Ida, where you try not to cut back to a previous shot, and you only do so when it is absolutely unavoidable. I think this creates a very interesting forward momentum which makes the audience feel like they’re always moving forward, and accelerates the rhythm of a film that might otherwise seem slow to some.
Yes, that’s the idea, of course. I always try to minimize cuts: if a shot can still hold attention, then I always try to see how much I can hold it without cutting. And I also try to put as much into a single shot as I possibly can. So, ideally, I wouldn’t cut at all. Cuts are a film rhetoric that I try to minimize as much as possible; ideally everything should happen in one shot.
Do you know how many cuts there are in Cold War?
No, do you? I suspect we’re pretty far from that ideal one shot…
Yes: there are 251 shots, so 250 cuts.
Wow… how did you know? You counted them? That’s insane (laughing).
Anyways, I would have thought there would be less. There’s only one scene which is shot and edited in a very conventional way, with a lot of classical coverage, which I don’t usually do. It’s the scene of the meeting with the minister of culture. The reason was because the acting worked better, but also because it was a scene where I knew that looks and faces would be so important to understand the dramatic dynamics, and hence cuts would be really helpful.
There's a pattern in the film whereby the lack of freedom of Communism is emphasized with compositions that are very symmetrical, straight-on, and formalized, and this is contrasted with non-symmetrical and non-static compositions in other moments, and finally in scenes of absolute freedom the compositions become completely opposite, with a very shaky handheld camera which even allows for lens flairs.
I didn’t think about this in these terms necessarily, as in “this is communist, official art, so I’ll frame it like this”. I always think more in terms of the psychology of the characters. If they’re feeling tense, stiff… then I’ll tend to use these formalized, static compositions. I like framing and composition to come from the psychological state of the characters rather than from me trying to illustrate the system or the politics of the theme. Although in some cases, like in the examples that you are mentioning, it works in both ways.
There is a specific moment in this sense that I find particularly interesting: it’s the last shot in Paris, towards the end of the film, when Wiktor has decided to go back to Poland… and for the first time in the Paris apartment you decide to go back to those compositions that we have associated with the stiffness of Communism: formalized, straight-on, symmetrical.
Again, my intention was not necessarily to make a political point about his return to Communism, but to express his feelings of defeat. The real question for me is: how do you find the form for the particular emotion of the moment, rather than how do you illustrate the intellectual point of the scene or the film.
All of these formal decisions, do you take them all before the shoot, or do you leave yourself some space for improvisation during filming?
I think about it, of course, but not everything is decided. We do a lot of research with my Production Designer and my DoP, we look at a lot of pictures from the period, visit lots of locations, and we slowly, very slowly approach the right style for the film. But then when you’re on set and you have to set up the shot you still give yourself some freedom to sculpt the image a little more. I say that cinema is very close to sculpture in that sense.
One of my favourite ideas in the film is related to 3 camera movements, and I was wondering if your intention was to relate them to each other: the first one is in the concert in Split, when the camera moves behind the singers’ heads and then pans and, with a focus rag, finds Kaczmarek in the stalls. The second movement is when, in Paris, Zula listens to her new album for the first time, and the camera also moves behind her and then pans and changes focus to Wiktor, who’s in the back of the room. And the fact that you’re doing the same camera movement for Wiktor that was done for Kaczmarek, who is in many ways the antagonist of the film, seems to anticipate that something terrible is going to happen… and of course it does right after the party. Finally, the same rotating movement followed by a focus rag is done when Wiktor is completely devastated after Zula’s departure, playing the piano, drunk and desperate.
Yes, I had thought about these movements relating to each other at some point, but then I had forgotten about it until now. It’s interesting that you mention it, thank you. The truth is that I try not to intellectualize these things so much, but I think they appear naturally when you work in the right direction. I think that when you impose limitations to your style and then let your intuition sculpt the film within those limits, often times you find things that you didn’t expect and you realize that things start to fall into place on their own, unexpectedly. And that’s what happened with these movements, that without having planned it too much intellectually, I discovered at a certain point that they bore a very strong relationship, which makes perfect sense and feels completely right.
However, the three movements are also motivated by music, and they lead us to a sort of punchline. This concept, which I don’t know how to best describe in English (maybe a small twist or joke or punchline) is very important in my films, since I strive to include one in every single shot.
Apart from these three, most of the camera movements inCold Warseem to be intricately linked to the character of Zula: it’s her who activates the first camera move, bringing movement to the film, and from then on it seems like the camera always moves with her, according to her mood and energy.
Exactly, she’s the reason why I introduced camera movements, because she’s pure energy. Even in the last moment she can’t even sit still on the bench, because she’s so fidgety. That’s her principle, that she’s always on the move. And since she brings energy into the film, she activates the movement of the camera.
Another pattern that I seemed to detect is associated with mirrors: it seems to me like right after every single time a mirror appears in the film, something bad happens. There are mirrors right before their first political trouble, right before Zula deciding not to go to Paris with Wiktor, right before their big fight at the party…
You’re right; that’s very interesting. I think this is because when characters look into the mirror they are facing themselves, and thinking about themselves (Who am I? What do I want?), and making decisions. And of course, in this film, which is quite tragic, major decisions often lead to moments of crisis, so this is yet another one of those things that just falls into place magically.
Speaking of magic, I thought the final shot was full of magic. First because of the time of day, because magic hour in black and white is absolutely striking, which is something people don’t usually talk about. But also because of the idea of having them stand up and change benches, which feels like such an elegant way of having them die in the film but not on the screen. Their death is expressed by having them literally disappear from the film, followed by that (again) magical streak of wind.
Yes, magic hour in black and white is astonishing, almost as much as in colour, but in colour it has become a bit banal, too much of a cliché. But it was tricky to shoot, because that “magical streak of wind”, as you said, isn’t created by magic, but by a huge propeller which we brought on set but which we couldn’t get to work properly… so we almost lost the light when we were shooting this scene.
The idea of having them stand up and change bench just hit me one day when I was thinking about the ending, because I realized that I couldn’t just have them sit there on the bench and die. And suddenly it occurred to me that Zula is always moving, she’s so fidgety that she can never sit still, so it made sense for her to stand up and change bench. But I never realized that this moment would be so powerful and resonant until we were shooting it and the continuity supervisor started crying, saying it was so beautiful.
This death also relates to what I was saying earlier about their love story existing outside the film, because it’s like the characters decide that they don’t want to die in the film, that they’re leaving the frame. They died, but we don’t have the privilege of witnessing it, because they decide to leave the film before that.
And then, after their disappearance and the fade to black… we the first non-diegetic music in the film, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Why is Bach the only score music in the film, as happened in Ida? In Ida,the use of Bach at the end seemed to encapsulate the whole story of the film, as if the protagonist was choosing the sacredness of Bach over the (still great, but maybe less sacred) alternative or Coltrane.
You’re right… but it’s the director who chooses, not the character (laughs). Certain things by Bach seem to reconcile you to life. As you say, Bach is the only non-diegetic music in both this film and Ida, which means it’s the only music that works like a comment on the film, a comment that I make. Bach expresses a certain sense of calm and peacefulness, like there is a higher force that keeps everything together. (…) I actually wanted a friend of mine to compose something for the end credits, so I told him: you have two months to compose something or else I will use Bach… Now I realize that, of course, it’s an impossible commission.