The director Paweł Pawlikowski shoots on treatment, allowing for cast input and on-set improvisation, and is regarded by the BBC as "one of Britain's leading filmmakers". His new hit Ida is currently taking over the world one prize at a time. Polish born, now living in Paris, he received an Emmy and the Prix Italia for his first documentary then took a BAFTA award for his feature debut.
His experiences as a refugee seem to be incorporated in his films. Scenes from Last Resort in 2000 all the way to The Woman in the Fifth from 2011, show passports being handed over and people stopped at customs that, as Nick Hasted writes, "leaves the protagonists in a purgatory". Pawlikowski recalls in the article:
Losing a passport once in Moscow. Once you lose it in certain parts of the world, your life will never be the same. When I first had a Western passport, it was such a weird feeling crossing borders. All of a sudden you don’t have to justify yourself, they have to treat you like a human being, you won’t be humiliated. Whereas if you lose this foreign passport, then you are at the mercy of whatever happens. The Russians have a phrase that means ‘anything goes’. No limits.
His films tackle difficult topics including war and deportation, with a dreamlike quality that makes them timeless and very "unBritish". His best known documentary, Serbian Epics, took Pawlikowski and crew to the front lines of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war in 1994. As an account of the revival of Serbian oral poetry, the film achieves this timelessness through approaching the topic of the war indirectly. Last Resort, Pawlikowski's first feature, is set in the British seaside town Margate, which houses "the mad and the bad – undeserving poor dumped by London councils all through the 1980s".
In The Guardian, Fiachra Gibbson writes that:
Margate is portrayed as a bleak holding tank of a failed resort area. Looking out on to a dilapidated amusement park, the area is a virtual prison.
Pawlikowski was accused by local MPs of shedding a negative light on the town, but the director doesn’t consider his films to be social studies. He told Victoria Lindrea for the BBC:
Last Resort was construed as a social document, an indictment of the asylum system - that's how a lot of people saw it. But I was much more interested in what was going on between the heroine and her little boy than explaining the plight of refugees. I don't want to make films about people on the margins of life, that's too easy.
In Fiachra Gibbson's piece, the Guardian writer says:
Like its director, Last Resort is a very peculiar animal. It mixes gritty realism with a very un-British dreamlike quality which transcends the grimness of its setting. The handheld, documentary sequences of refugees huddled in shuffling queues for a solitary phonebox or the interior fug of greasy spoons are cut with beautiful, lingering wide-angle landscapes to create the eerie perspective of people who spend their days peering out uncomprehendingly at the strange country beyond their windows.
Pawlikowski studied literature and philosophy in London and at Oxford. He started making films in his 30s as a documentary maker with the BBC Community Programme Unit. He approached the BBC with an idea for a documentary about a priest who wanted a cross placed on Pendle Hill in Lancashire to counter local satanists, a motif which the director later used in My Summer of Love. Despite funding problems he finally made Lucifer Over Lancashire in 1987, a film he considers "some scrappy thing".
From Moscow to Pietushki
He made his name with From Moscow to Pietushki in 1990. A documentary about Benedict Yerofeyev, author of the Russian underground samizdat classic From Moscow to Pietushki. Pawlikowski's documentary is a touching portrait of the writer, already dying of throat cancer when filming began. Striking sequences include interviews with Yerofeyev holding a microphone to his throat to be heard, intercut with patients being treated for alcoholic delirium, underlining the shocking scale of alcohol abuse in Russia. Pawlikowski traveled to Russia again in 1992 to tell the story of Fyodor Dostoevsky's great-grandson, whom he accompanied on a German lecture tour. As scholars organise debates and discussions about the epic Russian soul, their guest, a tram driver from St Petersburg has one goal in Dostoevsky's Travels: to get a Mercedes and drive it back east.
Pawlikowski made prizewinning documentaries through the 1980s and 1990s, then established himself on the festival circuit with Last Resort, his crossover into feature filmmaking. Pawlikowski received the Michael Powell Award for his feature debut and was named BAFTA’s Most Promising Newcomer. He said: "It’s funny when people keep on telling me that this film is a step towards making real cinema. I think I have to tell you: Last Resort is real cinema.". Writing for The Guardian, Andrew Pulver notes that Pawlikowski had been using "Paul" for his film credits, then reverted to Paweł for Last Resort. His influences and choice of cameramen also indicate his heritage. Wit Dabal and Bogdan Dziworski were cinematographers on From Moscow to Pietshki, and when asked by Film4 about his major influences, Pawlikowski names "a Polish documentarist who nobody knows, called Bogdan Dziworski. He left a bigger mark than anyone." Later on, Pawlikowski has worked with Jacek Petrycki, Krzysztof Kieślowski's camerman, as well as Stefan Ronowiczow and Ryszard Lenczewski, who has shot the director's recent features.
You're much more open as a documentarist", he told Film4 about directing documentaries. "I love the idea of shaping a film - not just writing it, but shooting organically and not getting bogged down in bad literature. Most scripts are really bad and the awful thing is that a lot of directors, because they just want to direct, shoot whatever's in the script, without realising that film's a living organism... You have to constantly revise it, rethink it, make sure it actually lives on screen, and is not just a translation of something on paper.
My Summer of Love
My Summer of Love, his feature from 2004, is based on a novel by Helen Cross and stars Emily Blunt and Natalie Press in an unlikely friendship between two 16-year-olds from very different backgrounds in a Yorkshire village. The film received the BAFTA Best Film Award, as well as the 2004 Edinburgh International Film Festival Best Film Award (as The Last Resort had in 2000). Pawlikowski tells Victoria Lindrea:
I've made films this way before. When you have three strong characters, good turning points and a possible ending, then you are in pretty safe territory.
While working on The Restraint of Beasts in 2006, a black comedy starring Ben Whishaw and Rhys Ifans adapted from Magnus Mills’ novel, a family crisis forced Pawlikowski to abandon work with about 60 percent of the film made. His wife fell seriously ill, and he left work to look after her and their children. He told Janusz Wróblewski for the magazine Polityka:
I chose life over art. My career was never more important to me […] It was more important that my children felt closeness, care, that they were aware of what was really important.
His wife died months later; the film was never completed, and he rarely talks about the painful period.
The Woman in the Fifth
The Woman in the Fifth from 2011 is another example of a script loosely adapted from a novel. Inspired by Douglas Kennedy’s book, and Pawlikowski says to Film4:
I looked at the book and thought: maybe I can stand it on its head and not look at it just as a thriller where things happen to the hero, who's innocent, but make the hero the problem.
Pawlikowski created a psychological edge, with mysterious and secretive characters who leave room for uncertainty. The Woman in the Fifth marked Pawlikowski’s comeback. The "moribund Euro thriller" as Variety's Justin Chang puts it, is a multifaceted story showing a failed writer at a turning point in his life, with Chang comparing the director to Roman Polański 30 years ago. Pawlikowski said "I am too lazy to treat directing as a profession". He only takes up projects that actively excite him.
Such excitement for his project can most definitely be felt in his recent Ida, triumphant at the 2013 Gdynia Film Festival and the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.
Ida, a young woman brought up in a monastery, wishes to make vows but must first meet her one living relative, an elderly woman who participated in political intrigues under Stalin. From this conversation, family secrets emerge and spin into an intricate Second World War Drama.
The film, shot in black and white, has been abundantly praised by the press. Joe Morgenstern writes in the Wall Street Journal that:
Much Ado About Ida
If the plot sounds schematic, the film is anything but. It's another odyssey, also in black-and-white, a trip taken by niece and aunt to find out what happened to Ida's parents during World War II. The literally square screen—so figuratively square as to seem revolutionary—is often bottom-weighted: space at the top, heads and shoulders down below. The result is a sense of flesh-and-blood people firmly grounded in their environments. Ida is a testament to how much more less can be, and to the power of impassioned performances. Stripped of superfluous technique, this exquisite feature explores national as well as personal identity, and the need for belief in a bewildering world.
In 2018, Pawlikowski became the first Polish filmmaker to win Best Director at the Cannes International Film Festival, thanks to the film Cold War. The script was co-written by the late Janusz Głowacki, to whom the director dedicated the award, saying the writer had had all the traits that Pawlikowski loves Poland for: courage, a sense of humour, tenderness and an openness to the world, and that these were qualities we must strive not to lose.
Paweł Pawlikowski Wins Best Director At Cannes 2018