In 2015, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature for his remarkable “Ida,” an 83-minute black-and-white wonder about the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust in the 1960s.
Now comes his much-anticipated follow-up, “Cold War,” opening this week. It’s also a compact, less-than-90-minute feature in black and white.
Pawlikowski, who visited The City for the Mill Valley Film Festival, claims that there’s no connection.
“I’m not that arty,” he says. “It’s just the nature of the film. ‘Ida’ was quite flat, this one there’s kind of an epic feel. I was thinking of using color, but I couldn’t think of a good color scheme for Poland in the ‘50s, which wasn’t colorful at all. It was murky gray and brown.”
Pawlikowski decided on “dynamic” black and white. “It’s about contrast all the time,” he says. “There are scenes that are almost overexposed. We made an effort to make it interesting, really juicy black and white, rather than documentary black and white.”
Currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “Cold War” centers on Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musical director who collects regional folk music, and on singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who auditions for his traveling troupe.
They are instantly drawn to one another, and the film follows their tumultuous relationship over many years.
The story has been said to be based upon Pawlikowski’s parents, but he clarifies: “It’s in the spirit of my parents, and it’s kind of inspired by their story, but it’s not them. I just like the names, so I kept them. It has become too much of a big deal,” he laughs.
He explains that, though his mother was a ballerina, his parents were not drawn together by music (his father was a doctor), and that their real story went on much longer and was far more complex.
As with his earlier films, including “Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love” and “The Woman in the Fifth,” Pawlikowski shows the passage of time in a most interesting way.
He tends to leave a scene almost in the middle of a moment, cutting slightly before some filmmakers traditionally might cut. He utilizes the same effect on songs, simply and sharply stopping in the middle.
“I love jazzy syncopation,” he explains. “But it’s not my house style. Form came out of content. It’s more like, how do we approach this? It’s an organic thing.”
The style also allows Pawlikowski to move through a story quickly, trimming the fat and getting to the essence of things.
Many small moments occur through cutting, such as one in which, on their way to a party, Wiktor asks Zula if he should wear a tie. She says no, but in the next shot, he’s wearing one. It says volumes about their relationship.
“Some people notice that stuff and others don’t,” says Pawlikowski, who won a best directing award at the Cannes Film Festival for “Cold War.” “If you can communicate through image, through costume, through bits of dialogue, but not informative dialogue, just the way people are saying stuff, I love that.”
“As soon as I’m being told something, explained something, in a film, I switch off,” he adds.
After its theatrical run, “Cold War” will launch as an Amazon Studios original film and available for Amazon Prime subscribers to stream.
Though Pawlikowski would prefer audiences saw his work in a theater, he sees several upsides to the new format. One is that modern home theater systems are “pretty good.” “I made a cinema at home,” he says. But availability is also a factor.
“Some of my early films are very difficult to find. I found ‘Last Resort’ in a black market in Peru for one euro,” he says. “If that’s the alternative, I’d rather they existed like this.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, Piotr Borkowski
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes