It’s reassuring to learn that one of the century’s best young film-makers is 60 years old. Pawel Pawlikowski is not, by most rational standards, in his first flush of youth.
But the films the Polish director has made since Last Resort in 2000 have felt like emissions from a fresh vibrant talent. That theatrical debut, concerning a Russian migrant's misadventures in Margate, won a Bafta and, at Edinburgh, the Michael Powell Award for best British film. The captivating, dreamy, erotic My Summer of Love helped discover Emily Blunt. Four years ago, Ida, a tale of Poland's uneasy relationship with its wartime past, stormed its way to the Oscar for best foreign language film.
“I like to make emotional films, but also to withhold easy gratification,” he says “I like the idea that not everyone will get into it. Well, I don’t love it. I accept it. That’s how most arts work.”
Most everyone who has seen Cold War seems to like it. Winner of best director at this year's Cannes film festival, Pawlikowski's latest is dedicated to the director's parents. That is not entirely a compliment. Joanna Kulig is incandescent and Zula Lichol is moodily charismatic as a couple – she's a folk singer; he's a musicologist and pianist – whose fiery romance takes them from Poland to Berlin to Split and to Paris. There's nothing cold about their private war.
“They are not literally like my parents,” he says. “But the dynamic between them is similar and the broad outline of the story is similar. This fight to the death. This constant leaving countries. The splitting up and getting back together again. The mechanics and the types are different, but the broad outline is similar.”
He laughs sweetly at the memory.
My father was a doctor. They came from different backgrounds
“My mother was a dancer,” he says. “She ran away to the ballet at 17. Then she became a lecturer in English literature. She changed. But she was always a hot-headed blonde. My father was a doctor. They came from different backgrounds.”
It’s probably worth sketching in Pawel’s complicated childhood before moving any further. He was born in Warsaw in 1957 and lived happily in that city until his mother took him to London when he was just 14. He later went to Germany before returning semi-permanently to London. He speaks a clutter of languages fluently. He spent decades gracing the British film and television industries. Yet he still hasn’t lost the Polish edge to his English-language vowels.
I had read that, when mum first packed him off for London, he wasn’t aware they were leaving for good.
“I thought I was going on some exotic holiday to the west,” he says. “My parents were divorced. My father ran away in 1969. I came with my mother in ’71 to meet her husband – as it turned out. I didn’t know they were married. I spent a year and a bit in London. I went to different schools, from which I was thrown out. I didn’t speak a word of English. Then my father got a job in a hospital in Germany and I went to live with him.”
Pawel later returned to England. He explains that he “fell in love with London” and the UK seems to have been good to him. He didn’t finish his PhD at Oxford, but, while among the dreaming spires, became involved with a film-makers’ workshop. That eventually led to a position at the BBC.
“That became the happiest time of my life,” he says. “I made documentaries and nobody knew who I was. I didn’t have to worry about ratings. It was also my film school.”
Like a lot of creative types in the BBC, he bristled when John Birt – famously described by Dennis Potter as a "croak-voiced Dalek" – took over as director general in 1992. He sighs as he remembers the arrival of focus groups and "mission statements". There seemed little place for idiosyncratic Pawlikowski documentaries such as From Moscow to Pietushki or Dostoevsky's Travels. Still, when God closes a door, he opens a window. Or something. Anyway, the imposition of the Birtist regime surely pushed Pawlikowski towards making that first theatrical feature.
"Yeah. Absolutely," he says. "How do I combine love of the documentary with plot, with stylisation of shots? There was a quite logical transition there. Then I did The Last Resort. And I always kept that documentary feel."
Just when Pawlikowski seemed set for canonisation within the British cinematic church, life intervened in the cruellest fashion. He had shot around half of what sounds like a great lost film – an adaptation of Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts starring Rhys Ifans and Ben Whishaw – when his wife fell gravely ill. She subsequently died and Pawlikowski withdrew from film-making to raise his two children.
The kids were young – 15 and 13 – and that was a big disaster for all of us
“It was a very straightforward decision,” he says. “My wife was Russian and she didn’t have any extended family in England. The kids were young – 15 and 13 – and that was a big disaster for all of us. I couldn’t have focussed on film-making. So I took four or five years off. I stayed at home and taught at the National Film School a bit.”
He eventually returned in 2011 with an oddly pitched adaptation of Douglas Kennedy's The Woman in the Fifth starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. Wryly philosophical about the ups and downs of his career, Pawlikowski shrugs off his first experience of poor reviews. (Is it wrong to suggest that there's something very Polish about his fatalistic sense of humour?) "I liked that it went somewhere strange," he says. "But it didn't really land. So objectively I suppose it didn't work."
Ida was conceived as a formally simple film set in a world he knew. Shot in monochrome using the narrow Academy ratio, the picture follows a young novitiate, who has recently learnt that her family were Jewish, travelling through Poland in the early 1960s. Pawlikowski, who discovered his own grandmother was Jewish in his teens, saw the film as a balanced consideration of still-unresolved conflicts in Polish history. The film did well in his home country. It won awards. It won more awards. When the Oscars began to loom, political opportunists saw their chance.
“The Oscars coincided with the election campaign in Poland,” he remembers. “This right-wing party was doing everything possible to galvanise support: from small towns, villages. They were searching for the 30 percent you can win elections with. They told them: ‘This is an anti-Polish film. It’s doing well because Hollywood is run by Jews. Trust us. It shows the Stalinist state in a good light. We haven’t seen the film, but don’t worry about that.’ ”
Pawlikowski seems more dismayed than angered. He is able to appreciate the absurdity of the situation.
“All ideological people, whether right or left, don’t look at art as art: as something that has layers to it. They just simplify it to serve their narratives,” he sighs.
The gorgeous, silvery Cold War has suffered less criticism at home. Indeed, it is looking like a mainstream hit in Poland. Startlingly economic at 85 minutes, the picture takes us through a decade of European history at a gallop. An ethno-musicologist and a young singer meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. He makes her the star of a folk ensemble. They fall in love. He flees across the border to gloomy Berlin. They meet again amid the smoke and jazz of Paris.
“When I was a child these folk groups were the bane of our lives,” laughs Pawlikowski. “There was a lot of it on TV and radio. We were fans of The Kinks or the Small Faces or Polish rock music. I later went to see this folk ensemble and they blew me away.”
The music is beautiful. The cinematography is suave. Few films this year will be more handsomely mounted. Yet this remains an interestingly awkward piece of work. The director makes no effort to ground the romance in cute meet-ups and explicit statements of affection. It just is.
"That happened in Ida too," he says. "I leave a poetic space for you to fill in. Or not. That's how poetry works. That's how I like films to be. I hate literal storytelling – making sure you've really got it. People saying: 'I love you.' Or film-makers illustrating love. Cinema is always metaphorical. I hate those cheesy means of making sure that people got it."
He has two potential film projects on the back burner
Pawlikowski now lives back in Warsaw. He teaches a bit. He has two potential film projects on the back burner: “a big complicated film and a simple one with only a few characters”. We seem to have completed a circle.
“I live right next to where I grew up as a kid,” he says. “It is like a return to the past.”
The five features of Pawel Pawlikowsky
Last Resort (2000): Dina Korzun plays a Russian woman who, adrift in a Kent resort, makes uneasy friendship with a local man (Paddy Considine) while her asylum claim is processed.
My Summer of Love (2004): Natalie Press and a then-unknown Emily Blunt play two women falling in love during a dusty Yorkshire summer. Another evocative portrait of English landscapes.
The Woman in the Fifth (2011): What's this now? Ethan Hawke encounters Kristin Scott Thomas in a distorted version of Paris that may (or may not) make more sense in Douglas Kennedy's source novel.
IDA (2015): Agata Trzebuchowska is hypnotic as a novitiate digging up unhappy secrets in post-war Poland, but Agata Kulesza – also seen to advantage in Cold War – steals the film as her charismatic aunt.
Cold War (2018): Gorgeous, sonically rich portrait of a relationship that bounces around Europe over a turbulent post-war decade. Wilfully terse in its storytelling. Uncertain in its conclusion. Sure to figure in Oscar season.