It’s not often that we get two gorgeous black-and-white movies in the same year. Yet with “Roma” and “Cold War,” we can feast on two very different monochromatic (and digital) gems.
But while Alfonso Cuarón (serving as his own cinematographer) created a new large-format aesthetic with his childhood recollection, Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal expanded the boundaries of a more familiar aesthetic with their exploration of love and landscapes.
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Loosely inspired by the lives of Pawlikowski’s parents, who met in Poland during the ’50s, “Cold War” tells the tempestuous love story of musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and free-spirited young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). The attraction of opposites during a time of great oppression results in a dance of light and shadow that can only be achieved in black-and-white.
“We were initially afraid of repeating ourselves after ‘Ida,’ shooting in black-and-white [with the Alexa] and the same aspect ratio of 1.37 : 1,” said Zal. “But the grayness of Poland demanded it. Black-and-white is more iconic. It allows you to build your own interpretation of the world.”
Indeed, “Cold War” was not only filled with shades of gray but also pushed contrasts to extremes. “You have rules but we were always breaking them,” added Zal, who took home Camerimage’s Silver Frog. “We experimented and made dark scenes even darker and bright scenes even brighter, sometimes white. Such high contrast in color would’ve looked ridiculous.”
With Pawlikowski, every scene contains layers of spontaneous rhythm and the attention to detail occurs on a micro level, according to the cinematographer. But when the movie opens in Poland, it has a documentary vibe. The lighting is very bright, the compositions are wide with great depth of field. And when the camera pans, it often appears to be out of sync with the folk singers and dancers.
But that changes with the appearance of Zula and the shift toward a freer, more subjective style. “She triggers the camera somehow,” Zal said. “I remember in my notes that it says there is an energy to Zula and when the camera moves, there is a power. When it came to lighting her, I looked at Marilyn Monroe movies.”
Zula’s magnetic power becomes evident in one of the most important scenes. Wiktor and Zula are in the fields near the river, and it is the moment when they fall in love, secluded in their own heaven on earth. But it’s interrupted by their first fight, a harbinger of the cross-purposes that will separate them. And yet, when the camera travels with Zula alongside the river, he cannot escape her spell.
The shift to Paris, then, changes the emotional tone and visual composition. “We jumped into the West with lots of lights, higher contrast and a more shiny, more glamorous Paris,” Zal said. “Of course, we wanted to make this look like a trap. We started to use longer lenses in Paris and because of night we used shallow depth of field.
“But there were moments when we used longer lenses and the background was so blurred. that they were really not connected with Paris. At first, it looked like we had a problem. A producer came to the set and complained that he couldn’t see any of the good production design that they paid for.
“I thought maybe we were too bold. But it worked. It was so condensed and tight and no air. There was this relief that you don’t control everything and they just become part of the landscape. But I knew then that when we got to the ending in Poland that we were going to use as wide a lens as possible. It was sunny and they were part of a bigger whole.”