How Oscar Favorite ‘Cold War’ Turned a Personal Story Into a Sweeping Epic

TheWrap foreign magazine: Director Pawel Pawlikowski based the story on his parents’ volatile relationship, but he says he wanted to set it in “the epic backgrounds” of post-World War II Europe

Pawel Pawlikowski Cold War
Getty Images

A version of this story about “Cold War” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s first film since his Oscar-winning “Ida” spans a decade and a half of post-World War II Europe to tell the story of a pair of musicians drawn together and torn apart by a tempestuous love.

The film, one of the most acclaimed in the Oscar foreign-language category, is Poland’s entry in this year’s race. This interview is one of a series of conversations TheWrap had with directors of the 2018 foreign directors.

The story is loosely based on or at least inspired by your parents, isn’t it?
PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: The main couple, their relationship is kind of inspired by my parents and their rather volatile relationship. Coming together and separating, coming together again, leaving each other to go to other countries and marrying other people, getting together again, quarreling again… The kind of couple that can’t stay together, but who realize in the end that they have no one but each other.

But my parents’ lives were more messy and chaotic than we see in the film. I reduced the timeline to 15 years instead of 40 years so that I could have two actors play it. And once I introduced the element of music, which brings them together and reflects all the changes in their relationship and in time and place as well, I could remove them from any resemblance to my parents, who were not musicians.

Why tell the story in black and white, the way you did with “Ida?”
The story had been with me for ages, and I didn’t even think of how to shoot it. It was only after I finished “Ida” that I started thinking, “How do I turn this into a film?” Then questions started to emerge. How do I tell it without being literal and boring and have a cause-and-effect plot? How do I make it imagistic? What sort of images and colors do I use for Poland of the ’50s, which was gray above all?

I wanted the film to have a bite, to be visually dramatic and expressive. And the most obvious way to do it was again black and white, but a different kind of black and white from “Ida.” This is much more contrasty and dynamic. And also, I added more elements like camera moves and a different sort of framing — the camera was placed a bit higher so there was much more happening in the background. I wanted to relate their story to the epic backgrounds of Berlin, Paris, Poland.

You also take jumps in time that rely on the audience to fill in the blanks.
The more I wrote and rewrote, the clearer it became what bits were too boring and literal. I always wanted to tell it elliptically — I didn’t want to make something that resembles a biopic with all these scenes that are there to get you from A to B. I wanted to have a film made up of strong scenes which are visual and suggestive, where the image and the body language tells the story, in which you can condense a lot of things. I’ve been heading in that direction for a while — “Ida” was pretty elliptical. I did that at the risk of losing some audience, but surprisingly people seem to go with it.

How difficult was it to recreate post-war Europe in so many different cities?
We scoured the country for locations for months and months. It was very difficult, because that world doesn’t exist anymore. We found some elements, some derelict things that we then repaired. Basically, it involved a lot of traveling to get to the right places, landscapes and buildings. And in addition, we used quite a lot of green screen to add to what we found.

Overall, what were the biggest challenges in making the film?
Everything was a challenge. This kind of sculpting of scenes, where the actors have to perform believably, with the right rhythm and without cuts, in the same space with the other actors, with the camera doing something interesting at the same time, and where the background action also has to work well.

I became kind of legendary for many takes. I tried to make everything work ideally within one shot, and that takes a lot of time and patience. Thank God the producers were used to me.

To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.

Oscar Wrap cover Burning Foreign