Cold War: Image and Music in Pawlikowski Movie

Once he had invented his fictional lovers, Pawlikowski needed to find a way to bring them together, and music became central to the film.

When he thought of the Mazowsze folk ensemble, a real troupe founded after the war and still active today, he realised that the institution itself would show what was going on in Polish society at the time, without his having to explain it.
‘Mazowsze has been around ever since I can remember. When I was a kid, the state radio and TV was full of their music. The official music of the people. You couldn’t get away from that stuff. It was seen as uncool and absurd among my friends, who’d much rather listen to bootlegged recordings of the Small Faces or the Kinks. But when I saw Mazowsze live five years ago, I was totally gripped. The melodies, the voices, the dances, the arrangements were so beautiful and vital. And so far removed from our virtual world and electronic culture. They swept you away.’

Mazowsze (named after an area of Poland) was founded in 1949 by the Polish composer Tadeusz Sygietyński and his wife, the actress Mira Ziminska. They went into the Polish countryside to collect folk songs, for which Sygietyński then made new arrangements. Ziminska re-worked their lyrics and made the costumes (inspired by traditional peasant outfits from different regions). The original impetus was a genuine interest in the traditions and the music – a little along the lines of what Woody Guthrie was doing in the United States – and Pawlikowski also mixed in details from the work of Marian and Jadwiga Sobieski – another couple of musical ethnographers who travelled the land and made direct recordings like the ones made by Wiktor and Irena in the film.

And just as the fictional Mazurek ensemble is in the film, the Mazowsze was co-opted by the Communist government, who saw it as a useful propaganda tool. The songs of the people were pitted against the decadent art of the bourgeoisie – jazz or 12-tone music. ‘Mazowsze did tour all Warsaw Pact capitals and go to Moscow,’ Pawlikowski says, ‘and they did dance in front of Stalin and sing a number called The Stalin Cantata’.

Though Pawlikowski began his career in documentaries and is always rigorous in his nonornamental approach to filmmaking, he doesn’t replicate the historical facts, but makes music stand for much of what the story contains: sex and exile, passion and transposition. Pawlikowski, who has played jazz piano himself, listened to all the tunes sung by the Mazowsze and chose three he thought could be echoed throughout the film in different forms. He turned the Mazowsze standard Two Hearts first into a simple rural tune, sung by a young peasant girl, and then into a haunting jazz number sung in French by Zula, who has become an ethereal Fifties chanteuse in Paris.

When we first hear Wiktor’s jazz ensemble in a Paris nightclub, the bebop tune played by his quintet is a version of the Polish oberek found earlier in the film; first played by a woman on a pedal-powered accordion and then peformed by Mazurek as a dance at their Warsaw premiere in 1951. Later, in Paris, when Wiktor loses it at the piano and goes into a wild improvisation, the jazzed up oberek resolves into Two Hearts and The Internationale (which was also sung by Mazurek at a swearing-in ceremony in the Polish section of the film).

Everything that’s unspoken about love and loss – and about what separates the pair from each other – is carried in the music.

In this crucial work, Pawlikowski found a gifted collaborator: the pianist and arranger Marcin Masecki, whom he first met while casting for the lead role. ‘Masecki’s a cool customer’ Pawlikowski says. ‘Musically speaking, he would have made the perfect Wiktor. He’s an adventurer in music, brave and wildly eclectic. He recorded all of Chopin’s Nocturnes from memory, and Beethoven sonatas with noise-cancelling headphones on, in order to replicate the composer’s experience of being deaf. He loves playing rag-times, or improvising in bars and restaurants, where he anonymously eavesdrops on people’s conversations and lets them guide his musical meanderings. He also travelled up and down the country arranging music for local fire brigade orchestras.’

All of the jazz numbers in the film were arranged – and the piano parts performed – by Masecki. In the end Masecki didn’t work out as the lead. Apart from lacking acting experience, he didn’t quite have the right look. Wiktor needed to have a distinctly pre-war aura, and Tomasz Kot, who Pawlikowski eventually cast, was perfect in that regard. But when Pawlikowski used Masecki to help him try out the scene in which Joanna Kulig (Zula) sings back the Gershwin melody, their musical encounter was electric, almost erotic. It confirmed to Pawlikowski that music would be key in the story of Wiktor and Zula.

Adds Pawlikowski, ‘the casting of Zula was a far more straightforward affair. Joanna was there from the start. I knew her well from my previous films. She’s a friend. Her character, her musical possibilities and her charm were always in the back my head when I was writing Zula’s character’.

Anyone who has seen Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida, may immediately recognise the black and white images and near-square format, and imagine these things to be a conscious ‘signature’. In fact, Pawlikowski originally meant to make Cold War in colour.

‘I didn’t want to repeat myself. But when I looked at all the colour options,’ he says, ‘by elimination, I realised I couldn’t do this film in colour because I had no idea what the colour it would be. Poland wasn’t like the States, which in the Fifties, was all saturated colour. In Poland the colour was nondescript, kind of grey/brown/green.’ This, he says, was not a matter of photographic possibilities, but of actual life. ‘Poland was destroyed. The cities were in ruins, there was no electricity in the countryside. People were wearing dark and grey colours. So if you wanted to show that in vivid colour, it would be totally fake. And I did want the film to be vivid. We could have imitated the early Soviet colour stock – which was slightly off, all washed out reds and greens. But nowadays this would have felt very mannered. Black and white felt like a straightforward, honest convention. To make the film more dramatic and dynamic we enhanced the contrast, especially in the Paris section.’
As for the 1:1.33 aspect ratio, familiar from Ida (and known as ‘Academy format’), it’s something that comes naturally to Pawlikowski. All his early documentaries were shot on 16mm with a similar aspect ratio. He adds, ‘Academy format also helps if you don’t have much money for production design, because you don’t have to show so much of the world’. When he wanted to show more of the world with this restricted width, he and his DP Lukasz Żal simply put the camera higher up and composed in depth, with elements of the landscape and people arranged higher, in near and distant background.
In the prayer-like Ida, the camera was static except for one shot – the mise en scène happened within still, carefully composed frames. The film’s photographic style had a lot to do with the contemplative, withdrawn nature of the film. Cold War is a much more dramatic and dynamic affair. Pawlikowski decided to let the camera move – ‘but only for good reasons’. The heroine has a lot of compulsive energy and moves a lot, so the camera follows her. Another motive for occasional tracks and pans was the music, itself a dramatic character that carries the film. In any case, the decision of whether or when to move the camera was purely functional and had nothing to do with stylistic convention
‘All these choices came naturally and felt entirely logical,’ Pawlikowski explains. ‘There was nothing intellectual about them, they just feel like part of this film. Once you actually find the shape of the film, the film starts dictating everything – when you over-light, over-explain, or use the wrong line, gesture or the wrong framing, it immediately jumps out. There’s this great moment in a shoot when you feel the film starts to direct itself and all you need to do is pay attention. You can fantasise before you shoot, devise all sorts of shots and lines, but when you start shooting, you think: “This is too fancy”, or “This feels wrong, or like something from a movie”.’