09 · 12 · 18

The invention of Pawel Pawlikowski

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

In Pawel Pawlikowski’s filmography, his next-to-last film, Ida (2013) is rather singular for several reasons. The obvious one is that it made him an internationally renowned auteur thanks to its Oscar nominations in the categories for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, of which it earned the former. Yet the film is also a watershed for being the first fiction feature that Pawlikowski made in Poland, and for being a moment that would define him aesthetically in such a way that Cold War (2018), his most recent film, is more similar to Ida than the latter was to its predecessors. 

Although he grew up in Poland, Pawlikowski moved when he was 14 years old to London, where he would later start his career as a documentary filmmaker. Works like From Moscow to Pietushki: A Journey with Benedict Yerofeyev (1990) and Serbian Epics (1992) show  his fascination for Eastern Europe. A place of conflict and unfathomable imaginations, it was also his true home. His first fiction film, The Stringer (1998), would deal with the relationship between a Russian cameraman and an English media executive, while the following Last Resort (2000) would tell the story of a Russian woman and her son, who request political asylum in the United Kingdom. They’re both films which apparently reflect the clash the young Pawlikowski felt with a culture entirely foreign to Poland’s communist regime but there are no elements in their style which suggest what would come a decade later with Ida. In fact we can’t notice them in My Summer of Love (2004) or The Woman in the Fifth (2011), where eroticism takes the center stage.

It must be said that Pawlikowski’s themes are present in all these films: the identity of eastern Europeans, political persecution and the bodily pleasures as a binding and a liberation. They would all reappear in Ida but what makes this film remarkable is its visual style, which immediately evokes the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer. The story of a nun who discovers she is jewish before taking her vows lends itself to that treatment. The girl visits her aunt, a sexually liberated judge working with the communist regime who helpes her discover her own history and makes her question her strict values. Dreyer dealt with the ambiguities of faith in films that sometimes, like in Ordet (1955), affirmed it through miracles, and other times, like in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), they considered its effects destructive. Pawlikowski seems more influenced by this iconic portrait of the French martyr.

La pasión de Juana de Arco (1928, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

There’s a famous image in which actress Maria Falconetti makes a prayer in close-up. We only see her face at the edge of the frame, with a huge white space and a cross in the back. Pawlikowski uses this sort of composition abundantly in Ida. In fact it’s hard to find throughout the film a frame which doesn’t seem carefully planned. In his former features, in which he had also collaborated with cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, Pawlikowski employed a style that frequently used handheld cameras and many movements to show the characters and their surroundings. In contrast, in Ida there is only one handheld shot: the last one, which expresses an important decision made by the young protagonist. Before that every frame is steady and Pawlikowski explores spaces through editing. It must be added that this was his first black and white picture.

 Ida (2013, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Ida (2013, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

It only takes watching the trailer for Cold War to notice that, even though the camera moves around more, Ida’s black and white photography and impressive compositions have returned. The story is also set in Poland and, according to the director himself, it’s based on his parents’ relationship. It’s hard to say if this film and its predecessor are more personal than the ones that came before —they all include themes close to the director— but undeniably Ida allowed Pawlikowski to reinvent —invent?— himself like Dr. Strangelove (1964) started using several devices which, from then on, would be inevitable in Stanley Kubrick’s work. Beyond repetition, the cinematic languages of filmmakers like Pawlikowski and Kubrick —as well as many other masters of cinema— are signs of identity which announce their origin without even having to watch the credits. They’re the mark of true artists.