Paweł Pawlikowski: ‘My parents’ story was the matrix of all my stories’ | Film


In retrospect, the steps that brought Paweł Pawlikowski back to his native Warsaw seven years ago sound something like fate. He had been uprooted from his home city at 14 in 1971 when his parents divorced and his mother abruptly married an Englishman, spiriting Pawlikowski, without papers, to London. Although he had gone back to Poland to visit family during the Solidarity years and after the Wall came down, the thought of living back near his childhood home came as a surprise.

Not long after his 2004 film My Summer of Love won a Bafta as best British film, Pawlikowski suffered tragedy with the sudden death of his Russian wife. He took himself away from film-making for five years to devote himself to seeing their two teenage children through school in Oxford. He then based himself for a couple of years in Paris, where he made The Woman in the Fifth, an anguished and sometimes impenetrable tale of obsession featuring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. “I wanted to make a commercial film and it became about the least commercial film imaginable,” he says now, with a smile. He felt alien in Paris, still undone by grief, and all that came through in the film. “It became very personal strangely.”

Pawlikowski’s reaction to that experience was to head home, “to solid ground”; but when he thought about it, he discovered that meant Poland, not England. He spent several months driving out from a friend’s flat near his old home in Warsaw to the countryside that had hardly changed since his childhood. The result of those journeys into the interior has been two of the most singular and affecting films of recent years.

The first, Ida, the story of a young Polish novice nun who unearths the tragic secrets of her Jewish past, won Pawlikowski an Academy award for best foreign language film in 2015. The second, Cold War, which reflects in part on his parents’ tumultuous marriage, has been shortlisted in that Oscar category again this year, while Pawlikowski is among the nominees for best director (an accolade he also received for the film at Cannes). He is nominated in the same categories – foreign language film and director – at this year’s Baftas too, where Cold War is also up for best screenplay.

The recognition was unexpected, he says. He had made Ida to get as far away as possible from Hollywood and that red-carpet kind of world. “Back to Poland, no stars, no expectations and a landscape I really cared about,” he says.

I caught up with him late last month on an overnight stay in London where he was attending another awards ceremony, the Critics Circle Awards. He is an immediately engaging presence, thoughtfully confessional, dressed in black, with a ready smile.

We talked first about the ways returning to Poland had freed him to make the films he had always wanted to make (when he came to London he found his “cinematic fatherland” in Italian neo-realism and French New Wave films). Returning to central Europe clarified that. “In going back to Poland I was able to tell stories in which history has a real impact on what people do,” he says. “That is something I felt I could never do in England. History in the UK is so diffuse and people have such different experiences.”

Pawlikowski’s early documentary films – which saw him go on a fantastical trip up the Volga with the hard-drinking Russian novelist Victor Erofeyev, as well as exploring the historic forces that led to the siege of Sarajevo – represented a different kind of response to that past: “My real interest was in what the cold war left behind. The ruins of Marxism.” With Ida, and then Cold War, he has followed those currents back to source.

Official trailer for Cold War.

It seemed to make sense to him to film that world as he remembered it and imagined it, in black and white. He now sees that part of his motivation was to bring to life the family photograph albums that he carries with him wherever he lives. Pictures that contain “worlds with very few objects; two, three things that suggest a hell of a lot”.

At the awards the previous evening he had been talking to Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director had explained how, when he was growing up, his mother was always dressed in black and his world of La Mancha was always monochrome. The explosion of garish colour in his film-making was his reaction to that. “Whereas with me,” Pawlikowski says, “I was separated from that black and white world, so I guess I have wanted to return to it.”

For “about half a day” he thought about making Cold War in colour. Because the film features one of the folk dancing groups that were used as nationalist propaganda by the communists, he thought about filming in that washed-out technicolor of the Soviets, but that quickly felt too contrived.

Pawlikowski’s mother, Zula, was a ballerina, and had some history with those fake folk groups that were a feature of the TV and radio of his youth. That memory provided one way into his recollection of his parents’ marriage. The other was an enforced exile that his father, Wiktor, a doctor, endured for a while after walking across the border from East Germany.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2011 film The Woman in the Fifth.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2011 film The Woman in the Fifth. Photograph: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy

It’s by no means a blow-by-blow of their real story. “There was always drama,” Pawlikowski, an only child, says. “Mother disappeared. Then Father left the country. And then my mother took me to meet an English guy she had met; I never knew we were staying abroad for good. Then they both left the people they had married, met up, and started to live together again in Germany. Then from the mid-1980s they were both quite ill and they became this very beautiful loving couple, which made no sense to anyone who had seen the previous 35 years. They were tender, and they knew they had no one but each other.”

Where did he fit in?

“As a kid I was a bone of contention, maybe. At the same time, growing up in socialist Poland, you had street life, I had a gang of friends, a band. Coming here not speaking a word of English, that was the real trauma.”

Zula and Wiktor “put an end to themselves” in a pact, in 1989, just before the Wall came down. Zula had scoliosis and three operations that went wrong. Wiktor had three heart attacks and smoked and drank just the same. “So they just took leave in a peaceful way,” Pawlikowski says.

He had not known they would go through with that plan, and it left a huge gap in his life, one that he has partly filled, now, with his film. “We had been a trio,” he says. “I didn’t think about it for a long time as a story as such. But then I realised in my work I was constantly drawn to these kinds of love stories. I was offered the chance to do a film about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at one point and I was very tempted for a while. And I realised my parents’ story was the matrix of all my stories.”

Music becomes the soundtrack to their combat. The folk music is counterpointed with the jazz that became the music of rebellion in Poland after Stalinism. Pawlikowski’s camera is entranced by that contrast. “I went to see live performances of this surviving folk ensemble. Which was weird but really rousing. I loved looking behind the scenes. The changing rooms, everyone rushing around. All fake but also no fakery of any kind.”

Natalie Press and Emily Blunt in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2004 film My Summer of Love.

Natalie Press and Emily Blunt in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2004 film My Summer of Love. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

Both of his films have touched nerves in Poland. The resurgent Catholic far-right tried to get Ida banned or disqualified from prizes because of a perceived “anti-Polish” sentiment. Pawlikowski was blindsided by the intensity of that reaction. “With each award it won they got angrier,” he says.

In fact, the film could hardly be more nuanced in its treatment of his country’s complex history. Pawlikowski is pathologically opposed to the didactic: “But the thing is when you deal with humans and don’t foreground politics, perhaps the politics become stronger.”

The reaction to Ida has not stopped nearly a million people seeing Cold War in cinemas in Poland since it opened in June. Although Zula and Wiktor’s love affair explored some of the extremes of their historical and political moment, “everyone can identify with some fragment of that history,” he suggests.

And what would his parents have made of it?

“I think they would have liked it,” he says. “It’s short and it’s witty here and there. And they both ended up looking pretty glamorous.”

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