Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” script is a bold, elliptical piece of screenwriting that skips years and major story points in telling a 20-year love story of the tumultuous relationship between Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). In writing and rewriting the script, Pawlikowski boiled the story down to key moments and pieces, but the film gains its power from how he uses the camera to fill the gaps.
“I try to distill it into something that can be told filmicly,” said Pawlikowski. “When you imagine the scene, write it, you try to think in terms of what the body language and the camera can do. So you try to give yourself the possibility of filmmaking, of turning it into a good shot. And the possibility of telling the situation in one shot, ideally.”
A perfect example is the river scene that takes place 25 minutes into “Cold War.” Prior to this scene Zula and Wiktor’s romantic onscreen relationship has only been making love in a bathroom after a successful performance by their folk ensemble (inspired by the real-life troupe, Mazowsze). Between the bathroom and river scene, communist officials from Soviet Union take an active role in shaping the group’s direction, making Wiktor paranoid.
Watch this exclusive clip of the river scene below:
The next time we see the couple is months in the future, as Wiktor shares his plans with Zula for the lovers to defect while their now-flourishing musical group travels by train to perform in Berlin. Between sex in the bathroom and plans to run away together, the river scene (and ultimately, the one long take with a cutaway reaction shot) is all we have to understand the complex nature of their romantic relationship, and it largely comes from the camera.
“The camera move and everything in that, is a function of that situation – it starts idyllically, and she has this incredibly erotic look at him,” said Pawlikowski. “Then the close-up is disrupted, when she tells him that she’s been informing on him. And then, the body language does the job and the dialogue is just an extra thing. This very complicated crane shot, in the middle of nowhere, told the story, with a little bit of dialogue filling us in.”
Cinematographer Lukasz Zal said early on he and Pawlikowski established the rule that Zula’s energy would drive the camera movement. In this case, a technocrane following Zula captures how quickly the relationship can go from erotic to off-kilter, but how (and why) they snap back together like magnets.
“We were looking for formal solutions: How are we going to shoot this film?,” said Zal. “How are we going to shoot those scenes, and we were trying to find the idea for every scene, somehow. Every scene is like a micro film.”
Extensive work goes into capturing this with light, framing and movement. In the case of this shot, there’s waiting for the right sunlight to capture the idyllic soft warmth, followed by 12 to 15 takes to sync camera and performance. But planning the shot began months before. Zal would regularly joined rehearsals, music, and dance lessons for the actors, and spent countless hours at Pawlikowski’s home, reading and talking through the script and looking at various images to inspire them.
“We were recording a lot, and also we were just recording also rehearsal with actors and just some simple camera, like my little video camera I have,” said Zal. “After that, we were just analyzing this and looking at it through pictures and also other films.”
Pawlikowski said he enjoys the discipline of this approach. “It comes with experience of having made films where you kind of fail to do that,” said Pawlikowski . “‘Why did I kind of invent the scene that I can’t shoot interestingly?’ It’s just learning how not to be boring, how not to make films, giving yourself the opportunity to rewrite all the time, in terms of the better shot, the better set-up, the better scene.”
It’s an approach he said was only possible with a young cinematographer who didn’t count how many days he worked on prep, and threw himself into it over the months.
“I think what is very significant with Pawel, and I think it’s one of his most powerful feature,” said Zal. “Everything is in constant process. Nothing is set; it’s always what else can be put in frame to tell the story better.”
Pawlikowski’s “Ida” was also shot in a 1.33 Academy aspect ratio in black and white, but it was designed in what he calls a “meditative prayer,” with intentional flat and repetitive imagery. The conflict and historical backdrop of “Cold War” required the cinematography to tell the story in rich contrast and depth of field. In building their imagery around Zula’s evolution from scammer to star to displaced foreigner, the cinematographer and director found ways to shoot and stage key moments that captured her character.
Zal established a rule for the early part of the film, and all the scenes in Poland, they shot the film with wide lenses and closed down f-stop to create great depth of field, placing an emphasis on the larger historical situation the drama was set against. For the scenes in Paris, the reversed that to reflect what was happening with Zula’s character.
“The idea [was] just to feel like they’re not in their place, that she’s not in her place, she doesn’t feel well there, and they are separated from the background,” said Zal, who switched to narrower lenses for Paris and higher camera angles that emphasize the claustrophobic interiors. “She is somehow lonely and in their relationship. Later when we are back in Poland, we came back to those wide lenses and quite big depth of field and try to keep everything also in focus.”
According to Pawlikowski, it’s no one thing: Not the acting, or script, or imagery, or movement, but getting to the essence of each component condensed into a single story moment. When you do, “it’s quite easy to reenact what happened in the gaps and how the characters have changed.”