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Pawel Pawlikowski
Pawel PawlikowskiPhotography Claudia Leisinger

Pawel Pawlikowski returns home

The Polish-born filmmaker talks about his haunting new mystery Ida, his tragic break from movies and, er, the merits of ‘Barbie Girl’

British cinema, perhaps without fully realising it, has missed Pawel Pawlikowski. He left Warsaw as a teenager, eventually settling in England, where he studied literature and philosophy at London and Oxford before starting his filmmaking career – mainly BBC documentaries – in the 1980s. The best-known of these – Dostoevsky’s Travels, Serbian Epics, Tripping With Zhirinovsky – were festival circuit regulars and prestigious award-winners.

His first foray in fiction was made-for-TV Twockers, low-budget and documentary-like. But it’s his two full-length features, Last Resort with Paddy Considine and, especially, 2004’s My Summer Of Love, starring Natalie Press and Emily Blunt alongside Considine again, a fever dream of sexual and emotional awakening that really established his unique brand of poetically-infused naturalism. Both films won BAFTAs, but then in 2006 while filming an adaptation of novel The Restraint of Beasts, tragedy struck when Pawlikowski’s wife fell ill and sadly died. The film – and his burgeoning career – was halted.

Pawlikowski belatedly returned to features with 2011’s odd, elliptical The Woman in the Fifth, a Paris-set thriller that, in his own words, is “formally, culturally and emotionally unclear”. Which makes the deservedly rapturous reception for his new film, Ida – winner of the Best Film Award at last year’s London Film Festival – all the more satisfying. It’s the story of a young, orphaned, novitiate nun in early 60s Poland who learns of her Jewish identity and accompanies her world-weary aunt back to uncover their dark family secrets from during wartime.

Shooting for the first time in Poland, Pawlikowski’s striking visuals and beautifully underplayed emotional revelations – Agata Trzebuchowska who plays Ida had never acted before – cast a tragic, magic spell. It’s not just British film, but world cinema that benefits from Pawlikowski’s renewed artistry. It’s great to have him back.

In so many ways – the static shots, the unusual framing, the monochrome look – Ida is visually so different from every other current film. What inspired that look?

Pawel Pawlikowski: My main motive was not to make cinema. I’m really bored with cinema and its emotional tricks – close-ups, handheld, music that underlines stuff – it doesn’t work on me any more. Not just commercial films, even arthouse. It’s more postures and pretend emotions. So okay, let’s make a film that’s more photographic  – photography and sound. Each scene is handled from one angle, as powerfully as possible, but simply. Everything feels a tiny bit accidental.

Was it, then? An accident?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It was more intuitive. There wasn’t an idea behind it, at least to start with. I chose this 4:3 format, which is great for portraits and faces, but when it comes to landscapes, it’s fantastically limited. So to create a sense of space, I tried tilting up, to see if there are things in the sky or the architecture. And then it felt right. And of course I started going with it and then it was too late to back out!

Did your cast and crew embrace your innovations straight away, or did they need convincing?

Pawel Pawlikowski: Some people freaked out and panicked – my DoP left on the first day of filming. He just didn’t feel it. But others found it fresh that I was going out on a limb. I felt that with my production designer, the young cameraman who took over… nobody on this film I’d ever worked with before. That anarchic spirit is still around in Poland.  

“My DoP left on the first day of filming. He just didn’t feel it” – Pawel Pawlikowski 

Of your two lead actresses – one is a veteran and one had never acted before. How do you balance that within a scene?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It helped that they were both very intelligent. And strong. And the atmosphere on set was very good – we’re all in this crazy thing together. Agata (Kulesza) likes this going-on-a-journey idea. And young Agata (Trzebuchowska) understood that what she’s got is what I need and it’s more a question of delivering it well. Her character also didn’t need to be so versatile. I don’t think a non-professional could have played Wanda, for example.

This is the first film you’ve shot in your native country. Was it a “homecoming”?

Pawel Pawlikowski: I’ve lived in the UK most of my life but as much as I love it, Warsaw I always felt is my town – a bit clapped-out and shabby but full of surprises, grey areas, vitality, the grotesque, stuff I feed off. I suppose what went into Ida is drawing some kind of balance sheet, a return to the past, to a period of my childhood and my parents. Now I'm in my 50's I feel the pull of the past. Having history is one of the crucial elements in life.

Does that make it your most personal film?

Pawel Pawlikowski: I don’t make films that often. I have three or four ideas on the go that mutate, then all sorts of disasters, family problems, love problems, whatever. So when I finally make a film, all that finally goes into it. (My previous film) The Woman in the Fifth is a very personal film, and for a psychoanalyst it’s a feast! It’s a very solipsistic film, it happens in the hero’s head – my head – and it reflects where I was at the time.

There was a long gap between My Summer in Love (2004) and The Woman in the Fifth (2011).

Pawel Pawlikowski: I became a widower and I just had to wait for my kids to grow up. Then my kids left home and I had a delayed mid-life crisis. I was in a bit of a hole in 2011 when I went to Paris and made The Woman in the Fifth. So it was a good thing to leave the country, my environment, my kids, and jump into the unknown. Paris is beautiful but it’s totally not my home. It’s like if somebody left the furniture and you have the honour of inhabiting it for a while.

“With every film I make I think, ‘This could be my last film.’ That gives me a certain freedom” – Pawel Pawlikowski

Was there a real possibility you wouldn’t return to filmmaking?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s hard to say because there’s no other job I could sensibly do. But with every film I make I think, 'This could be my last film.' That gives me a certain freedom.

With The Restraint of Beasts, would it ever be possible, or would you ever wish to revisit—

Pawel Pawlikowski: It's a bit… (silence) The whole memory of that film is painful to be honest…

So do you have your next projects lined up?

Pawel Pawlikowski: I’ve got a film set in Poland, again in the past but not so far back. And a road movie with Bach! He undertook a famous pilgrimage on foot when he was 20, to this great master of the organ. He was a troubled young man, Bach, violent and full of contradictions and in need of God and harmony. 

You use Bach in IDA 

Pawel Pawlikowski: At the very end. That’s the way out of the film. All the music from the film is from my longtime personal hit list!

Music from childhood is sort of embedded in you.

Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s haunting. And some songs, even if they’re moronic, they’re brilliant. Like, “I’m a Barbie Girl, In a Barbie World".

Ok, I’d maybe draw the line there…

Pawel Pawlikowski: No, I think it’s the perfect harmony of form and content! Which is the definition of great art, I suppose… 

Ida is in cinemas today