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The Personal Cinema of Paweł Pawlikowski

By Kevin Ding

His films are laced with lyricism, often evoking deep emotions without sentimentality. They are old-fashioned yet timely, personal yet universal. This has made Paweł Pawlikowski a formidable force in world cinema. He was born in 1957 in a Poland that was undergoing grand political changes. At age fourteen, he and his mother emigrated to the UK where he eventually studied literature and philosophy at Oxford.

Pawlikowski started his career in the 1990s as a documentarian before transitioning into fiction a decade later with low-budget dramas. He has now won Academy Awards (his Ida was the first Polish movie to win Best Foreign Language Film), several BAFTAs and European Film Awards, as well as Best Director at Cannes.

Although acclaim has followed Pawlikowski for most of his career, it was his most recent films Ida and Cold War that catapulted him to indisputable stardom. Made after a return to his homeland four decades after he had left, these two films reflect his own emotional journey and traverses subjects such as Polish history, Jewish identity, religion and 20th century politics through an intensely personal lens.

Polish Jews

Ida tells the story of Anna, a young nun in 1962 Poland who finds out her parents were Jewish. Her birth name was Ida Lebenstein. She embarks on a trip across the countryside with Wanda, her aunt and only living relative, to learn the fate of her family.

Before the Second World War, Poland had been a thriving centre for Jews. For centuries, it had been home to the largest Jewish population in the world and was a safe haven from anti-Semitism. The Polish Jews were one of the first communities to face systematic genocide during the Holocaust.

Paweł Pawlikowski’s father was part of the Jewish intelligentsia that had assimilated into mainstream Polish society. At some point in his upbringing, Pawlikowski found out that his paternal grandmother had died at Auschwitz.

Through Ida, Pawlikowski reflects on the process of understanding one’s Jewish heritage. This anguish of coming to terms with the tragedies of the Holocaust and Poland’s dark past is one that he has experienced. As the film goes on, Ida and Wanda gradually realise that the Lebensteins were murdered by the very man who initially hid them from the Germans.

Ida (2013)

Gomułka’s Thaw

In a scene in Ida which takes place in a courtroom, the official portrait of Władysław Gomułka, the former First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, is hung in the background.

Pawlikowski was born one year after a period known as Gomułka’s Thaw, in which Gomułka emerged as leader of post-War Poland for the second time. Being both a believer of the socialist model and a reformer (“the Polish way to socialism”), he was extremely popular in the late 1950s. However, Gomułka became increasingly authoritarian in the following years, and used anti-Semitism as a tactic to divert frustrations away from a collapsing economy. Many Jews left Poland in the late 1960s.

Gomułka’s portrait serves as another thematic iconography in the midst of all the complexities of Ida, almost foreshadowing the events that are yet to come in the setting of the film. He eventually resigned in 1970, which is a year prior to when Paweł Pawlikowski moved to London as a teenager. Perhaps for Pawlikowski, the Gomułka era is a direct reminder of his childhood in a Poland of despair, and fits in with Ida’s existential crisis of Jewish identity.

Communism and Catholicism

Ida’s alcoholic aunt, who was a Communist resistance fighter during the War and earned the nickname ‘Red Wanda’ as a state prosecutor, constantly questions Ida’s religious beliefs throughout the film. She asks what if Ida discovers that ‘God is not there’ when they find her parents’ bodies, and if she ever has sexual thoughts: “You should try, otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”

In a turn of the tragically ironic, Ida does indeed lose her faith in God after her journey through the past. She looks apathetic to daily life in the convent. She also gives in to so-called sin and sleeps with a handsome musician. However, the film ends with her once again putting on her convent clothing, seemingly having found renewed faith, whatever that may be.

Wanda, on the other hand, who has dedicated her life to the belief of Communism, commits suicide. At her funeral, her commitment to ‘the Party, the People and the New Poland’ is remembered, but at what cost?

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Pawlikowski, who was raised Catholic, mused “what does it means to be Christian?… What defines identity? The blood that you have? The faith you grew up with or your self-understanding?… Poland is full of these questions”. These are the questions that haunt Ida, Pawlikowski himself, and the viewer.

Ida manages to evoke an overwhelming atmosphere of pain, both internal and external. It’s beautiful in that it renders its eponymous character’s coming-of-age with a layer of intimacy and never lets the bigger picture obstruct that. The larger themes in the film are never explicitly stated, only there through implications. Despair is imprinted in the world’s environment, which recalls Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the dirty roads and shabby buildings falling apart in Poland’s socialist dystopia. Communism is not talked about, the character’s dialectics are not spelt out, and the Holocaust is never even mentioned. After all, the film is simply titled Ida.

Cinematic Influences

Like many filmmakers of his generation, Paweł Pawlikowski is quite cineliterate. In an article for The Criterion Collection, he lists some of his major inspirations. On Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, Pawlikowski praises “the black-and-white photography, the off-centre, often flat and seemingly accidental compositions, and the unexpected camera tracks. I loved the intimate connection between the camera and actress”.

We can see these techniques effectively imitated and utilised by Pawlikowski, with his camera interacting with Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida, as Godard’s did with Anna Karina.

He gushes about Ivan’s Childhood, describing how “Tarkovsky abandoned narrative and mixed up different perspectives, stitching together the personal and the historical in a totally unique way”. This is not unlike the similar synthesis Pawlikowski does in Ida or Cold War, in which he explores love being torn apart by the passionless Iron Curtain. 

Looking back at My Summer of Love

A retrospective viewing of Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love from 2004 reveals the beginnings of his style and thematic concerns as a auteur. Natalie Press and Emily Blunt (in a fearless debut performance) star as Mona and Tamsin, two young women who fall in love over the period of a sensuous summer in northern England.

The camera follows the pair in a dreamlike manner, often enveloped by the brightest of sunlight. Their forbidden romance is inspired by Terrence Malick’s early work like Days of Heaven or Badlands, in which love is presented as poetry, with nature as the backdrop. Mona and Tamsin’s kiss under a waterfall in Yorkshire shares a thematic link to the beginnings of Zula and Wiktor’s affair in Cold War, where their bond is solidified as the two lie down in the grass of the Polish countryside.

My Summer of Love (2004)

The ruminations on religion and lust found in Ida are present here as well. Mona’s brother Phil is a born-again Christian, and acts as a barrier between her and Tamsin. Music acts as a force of liberation for Pawlikowski’s characters. After a meeting with Phil’s Christian group, the girls go on a drug-fulled trip to a neon-lit club, with Goldfrapp’s song Lovely Head blasting the soundtrack.

In Ida, it’s jazz instead of electronic pop that liberates our main character. Her sexual awakening begins in the underground world of jazz where she meets the saxophonist Lis. Jazz shows her, like it did to so many people in Communist Eastern Europe, a world of freedom and improvisation, rather than authoritarianism of the State or the Church.

Pawlikowski’s Parents

Of all of Pawlikowski’s films, it’s Cold War, which re-imagines his parents’ real life love story, that uses music in the most significant way. Different songs and musical genres flow in and out of the story of Cold War and charts the ups and downs of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship, which starts in the 1950s.

Ida is an intimate story that reflects larger themes and subjects without ever naming them, whereas Cold War, like the title suggests, is a film with a story working on a large historical scale that is anchored by intimacy. Stalinism, the Iron Curtain and Communist concentration camps are not only explicitly mentioned or shown, but also used in significant plot points.

The song Two Hearts, Four Eyes is a leitmotif repeated throughout the film, with its lyrics emphasising the theme of forbidden love. It’s first sung by a little girl to Wiktor when he is running auditions for a folk music ensemble. This is how he meets and falls in love with Zula, who becomes part of the choir that performs Two Hearts, Four Eyes as part of their repertoire, signposting the couple’s doomed fate.

Wiktor is pushed to defect when they are ordered by authorities to sing Stalinist and Communist propaganda songs. When the troupe is in East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor crosses the border to the West alone at night after Zula doesn’t show up as agreed (the border was still porous before the Berlin Wall’s construction).

Witkor goes to the troupe’s performance in Yugoslavia, but he is escorted out and deported back to France before the performance of Two Hearts, Four Eyes. The lyrics ‘Dark eyes, you cry because you can’t be together’ has a deeper, more painful level of resonance when it is sung.

When the two meet in Paris some years later, Witkor is working at a L’eclipse, a jazz club, playing music that symbolically stands diametrically opposed to the folk style propaganda Zula is still a part of. The name L’eclipse is most likely a reference to the Michelangelo Antonioni film L’eclisse, also about a troubled romance. Two Hearts, Four Eyes is sung once again, this time by Zula in the jazz bar. ‘I went for him anyway,’ she sings, ‘and will love him until the end…

The last time the song is heard is on a record Zula and Witkor make in Paris. It’s sung in French, and we see Zula’s apathetic response to her own voice. From then on, their relationship falls apart, and she returns to Poland. Paris, although having the freedoms of the West, becomes a lonely place without their love.

Mourning The Woman in the Fifth

Paris was also the setting of Pawlikowski’s 2011 film The Woman in the Fifth, starring Ethan Hawke as a writer who travels to Paris to re-connect with his estranged wife and daughter. Alone in the suburbs, he meets Ania (played by Cold War’s Joanna Kulig) and Margit, a mysterious woman from the fifth arrondissement. Then Tom’s life gets turned upside down as the City of Light turns into a surreal nightmare.

The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

In 2006, Pawlikowski’s wife became ill and passed away soon after, and he retreated to live in Paris for a while. The Woman in the Fifth is infused with loss, and one feels like the depression Tom is wallowing in is that of Pawlikowski’s own. The titular woman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, could very well be interpreted as a cinematic reincarnation of his late wife. This is one of those movies I like to call ‘a weird film by a not-weird director’, like Louis Malle’s Black Moon. It wasn’t one of his more acclaimed films, and barely anyone really talks about it now. But as a portrait of mourning, it’s deeply moving.

‘The Pain of Being Alive’

On Maurice Pialat’s film À nos amours, Pawlikowski says ‘it makes you feel the pain of being alive quite viscerally’. It’s this pain that runs through Pawlikowski’s filmography. His work are sweeping tales of existentialism, in which the characters’ crises are often his own.

In the ending of Cold War, after years of crossing paths, Witkor goes back to Poland to find Zula and is sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp. After he is freed, the pair run off together to an abandoned church and commit suicide together, finally free from the pain of being alive.