How Łukasz Żal Created Loneliness and Alienation in ‘Cold War’ (2018)

Łukasz Żal and Paweł Pawlikowski’s second collaboration, a wounded love story set in post- World War Two Poland, was one of the most stunning films of 2018. On the surface, Cold War is about freedom, ethnic conformity, fear of defection and freedom to a foreign country. On the other hand, it’s a romantic affair between a pianist and a singer that spans through decades. 

The story begins with Wictor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor and pianist, his producer, Irene (Agata Kulesza) and a supervising party official, Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) travelling around Poland to find singers for a choir, in an attempt to bring folklore melodies back to the public. Through this, Wictor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer who grabs his attention. Enamoured by her talent and presence, Wiktor hires her and they begin a romantic relationship. When Wiktor finds out that Kaczmarek asked Zula to spy on him, Wiktor proposes a plan to defect to West Berlin and escape to Paris so that he and Zula can live together. However, Zula doesn’t show up and Wiktor crosses the border without her. After two years, Zula visits him in Paris where he is working at a jazz club, and they begin a relationship again. When Zula returns to Poland, Wiktor, unable to live without her, follows her back and as a result, is sent to a work camp for fifteen years. After five years, Wiktor is released and he meets Zula once more, who is now an alcoholic and miserable, and later the two exchange marriage vows and prepare to commit suicide together.  

Kaczmarek, Wiktor and Irene leaning against the mirror and watching the crowd at a ball. They are all wearing suits and evening gowns. The image is in black and white.
Image courtesy of Opus Film

This story is very close to Pawlikowski, with the characters even being named after the filmmaker’s parents, but everything else about the film is entirely fictional. Having the experience of working with Pawlikowski before, Żal was familiar with what the director wanted out of the movie. In the process of creating the two characters and the world around them, Pawlikowski shared family portraits and his family’s stories to create a visual narrative of the film. Żal mentions how exciting it was to collaborate with Pawlikowski again, as he prefers to write the script with images, meaning the story that he writes and creates are very visual on the page. It took six months of reading, writing, sharing thoughts and adding more details to the story by discussing love and relationship, which eventually turned into the passionate love story of Wiktor and Zula.

To craft a black and white love story, Żal had to collaborate with the other departments and figure out the cinematographic challenges of scouting, costume design, filming test shots and group rehearsals. The biggest challenge was to create a movie that was different from Ida, and this came with finding the right palette of black and white, but also using contrasts to the extreme. This tool helped craft a story that was dynamic and energetic, shifting emotional tone, the visual narrative and the character’s contrast relationship to convey the character’s energy on screen. Żal explains that in Cold War contrast presents itself in each layer of the film. It begins with the construction of the shot and the frame and plays with the emotional temperature of the character’s chemistry. Other factors to consider while working with heavily contrasted shots were lighting, production design, set and even locations to render a perfect black and white shot. 

Zula, wearing a black dress and a white pearl necklace, stands in front of the microphone. The image is in black and white.
Image courtesy of Opus Film

Crafting a scene is like a painting, it’s a vigorous process of adding props, removing them, and adding a lot of textures and details to create the right frame. The couple’s explosive love story helped create loneliness and alienation in Cold War and strengthened their emotional strength in each frame. Before Wiktor and Zula’s relationship begins, the camera is fixed and symbolises that an emotional connection has not been made between them – a sense of calmness before the chaos begins. When Wiktor and Zula are in the fields near a river, this is when the narrative shift happens. They have fallen in love with each other, and this is also where they have their first argument. From here on, the movie’s camera movements change from when they are together to when they are separate, symbolising that it is unbearable for them to be apart. As they fight, the camera begins to move with a long travelling shot alongside the river as Zula floats on the current. The camera starts to move more often at the arrival of Zula and her relationship with Wiktor, matching her energy and signifying the emotional feelings and their strengths as the characters grow to love each other. It was not just about camera movements but also giving importance to the set and location, to compose a shot that can tell the character’s story. 

In contrast, Wiktor and Zula sit opposite each other when they meet at a bar in Paris five years later. When they sit down at the table, the characters are captured in medium close-up shots while the camera stands still. The space around them is lively, as a car passes by and a blurry silhouette walks away at the edge of the frame and the bartender moves around behind the counter. There is no excitement or energy between them as they are talking to each other. Once Wiktor proposes to take Zula to the hotel, that is when the camera shifts again. As the two lovers talk about why Zula was not able to make it to the rendezvous point years ago, the characters move closer to the frame. The camera is shaky and these movements match their energy, and as Zula goes back and forth to Wiktor, the camera paces a bit faster than before, implying that they are still in love with each other. 

In terms of searching for the ideal frame, Żal and Pawlikowski decided to go with the 4:3 aspect ratio because it suited the compositions that they were going for; a painting or a poster and is perfect to portray an intimate love story. It gives equal importance to the composition in terms of the set and where the story takes place, as well as the character’s emotions and body language helped capture the ideal frame. According to Pawlikowski, the 4:3 aspect ratio helped to create wonder about what was outside of that frame, creating tension for the audience. 

Wiktor and Zula lay in a field. Zula lays on her side and watches him. He is wearing a white shirt with stripes whilst she wears black. The image is in black and white.
Image courtesy of Opus Film

Every layer in the composition is a story to tell for Pawlikowski. There needs to be rhythm and life breathing into the shot, with actions happening in the background, sometimes revealing a character in the next frame. In one shot, Irene, Kaczmarek and Wiktor are celebrating the end of the concert and they are leaning up against a mirror, and the mirror reveals what is happening in front of them in a single, fixed shot. Pawlikowski states that containing a shot within another shot is something he tried to do often in the movie, but there were challenges in this decision. It meant making sure the actors were in the right place, the props were placed in the perfect position, and making sure whether the background was working. If none of these was working correctly, it meant removing actors, props and trying a different angle to capture the actions within a tight frame. The final composition resulted in a splendid shot that visualised the scope of detail, layering and other elements used to craft a scene that goes beyond expectations. For Żal, it was important for him to find the right shades of greys, black and white, a colour palette that fit that period of Poland. Historically, films made in Poland at that time did not have colour during that time and completely relied on black and white imagery. Therefore it was Pawlikowski’s personal preference to shoot it in black and white because it was less cluttered, he mentions that “everything was less cluttered, with things, with information, with everything. Everything was black and white.” Żal and Pawlikowski wanted the story world of Cold War to focus on what is important to that story. It strikes a balance between Poland’s conversion to communism and Pawlikowski’s memories growing up during the war. It is a separate work and the director refused to reproduce reality from a world that he already knew. 

In the end, Żal and Pawlikowski crafted a story that spanned a long romance of two people who were madly in love. It is about sculpting the perfect shot, framing and reframing a painting, conveying the struggles of loneliness through Żal’s exquisite cinematography. The use of space and emotion is crafted with chilling imagery, contrasted with different shades of grey, providing the characters to invoke emotion in each frame bringing out the striking elements to life. Wiktor and Zula’s romance brings beauty to the cinematography and which are visually stunning and emotionally stirring, once the narrative shift happens. It hinders a change in their dynamic and works to craft a tightly woven narrative that tells a complicated story of yearning and fighting for intimacy.