Cold War reveals the passionate but troubled love story between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. With vastly different backgrounds and temperaments, they are fatefully mismatched and yet can never seem to give each other up. Set against the background of the Cold War in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris, this is a tale of a couple separated by politics, character flaws, and unfortunate twists of fate — an impossible love story in impossible times.
Pawel Pawlikowski won the Best Director award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for Cold War. His previous film, Ida, was a global success, winning the Oscar and BAFTA awards for Best Foreign Language Film as well as five European Film Awards including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay. His other feature credits include My Summer of Love and Last Resort. Cold War has been selected by Poland as its official entry for the 2019 Academy Awards and has made it to the shortlist. Joanna Kulig, who also appeared in Pawlikowski’s Ida and Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, has won several film festival and film critic associations’ awards for her remarkable performance as Zula. I was delighted to sit down with her in Los Angeles to talk about the film.
Danny Miller: Well, I’ve seen Cold War twice and I would call it a masterpiece – a word I assure you rarely comes out of my mouth. I thought your performance was simply extraordinary. Zula is such a complex character with so much mystery and yet you seemed to fully grasp every nuance of her.
Joanna Kulig: Dziękuję bardzo! You know, both of these characters were based on Pawel Pawlikowski’s parents, even their names, but in the end they were just the inspiration, we still had to build the characters. Pawel is a very special director. He is all about psychology, insight, and emotion, and yet showing it in the most minimal way possible, often using just our eyes. It was very challenging but so rewarding. Sometimes he’d make us do the same scene 20 times or more and just keep telling me to empty my face. I loved finding out who Zula was and what made her that way, and it was especially fun playing her at different times of her life. I found her strong, passionate, and very sad.
We learn about some trauma she experienced earlier in her life. Was that key for understanding how to play her?
Oh, yes, for sure. You see her very young and energetic and ambitious but you know that this trauma is somewhere inside her. She ultimately has these destructive parts of herself, she can’t really trust anyone 100 percent, and she sometimes does really stupid things. She had a relationship with Wiktor that was filled with love but at the same time, it was never easy.
Yeah. I totally believed their love, and I loved the message, more common in European films than American, I admit, that love isn’t always enough. Can you imagine a scenario in which Zula and Wiktor could have really been happy?
I mean, I think today when couples have problems in their relationship, they get help. I’m sure a good psychotherapist could have helped Zula understand a few things better. But in the 1950s in Poland? That wasn’t going to happen.
It’s like the two of them had conflicting flaws. If one of them could have met the other halfway, it might have worked, but their differences just didn’t seem to align very well. And then all of this stuff was going on around them. I was fascinated to learn more about that time period in Poland, something that most Americans don’t know that much about.
Some Polish people don’t either, I assure you! I think the older generation in Poland might see some of that differently than younger audiences, but I love the fact that no matter how much you know about this interesting history, it’s still a pretty universal story that touches on emotions we all can relate to. Poland has a complicated relationship with its history, especially right now. People don’t want to talk about certain things. But Pawel is very good at putting that background in there in ways that people can understand. The main thing is the love story, but if it makes people more interested in what was going on in that time period, that’s great!
I loved your singing in the film. When Zula gets frustrated and throws her record into that puddle in Paris, I wanted to grab it and take it home! I know you trained as a singer, but I also admired your dancing as well in the Polish dance troupe we see in the film. Was that a challenge for you?
Oh yes, I had to learn all that, but it was great.
Wait, were those real dancers from the famous Polish folk dance troupe, Maszowsze? I’ve seen them in performance several times.
Yes! I spent five months with Maszowsze, who our troupe in the film is modeled after, and they taught me everything! I lived with them during that time and got very close to them. It was very special. They helped me make young Zula believable. When I left they said, “Joanna, when you’re finished with the film, come back to Maszowsze and stay with us!”
I was fascinated by the part of the film when Zula and Wiktor are in France. In Poland, it seemed like she was extremely ambitious, but in Paris, when Wiktor was trying to make all these things happen for her as a singer, she just wasn’t into it.
Yes, she didn’t feel she belonged there. This is just another way that these two didn’t fit together. And I think she really wanted to be back in Poland.
I think it’s so brave of Pawel and you to show the very difficult sides of Zula’s character. I think many American films are concerned about the characters being “likeable” but I never lost my empathy for Zula even though she did some really awful things.
I think that’s how life is, it’s not black and white. And it’s why I think audiences really relate to these two people. No one is just happy all the time!
I would never ask you to explain the provocative ending of the film, but I wonder if audiences respond to that very differently. I know what I thought it meant but I’m sure other people feel differently.
Yes, it’s quite open to interpretation which I love. There’s always hope in this film but it’s not simple. Their story is never really finished no matter what happens. I think this movie makes you think a lot about love and relationships. Love can be very powerful but it needs to be taken care of, like watering a flower.
I also love how we dip into their story at various times in their lives — suddenly a few months have passed, or maybe a year, or several years. That must have been interesting to shoot as well.
Yes, and Pawel shot most of that in chronological order which was great — and not that common for a film like this. So, I was able to lose a lot of weight for the beginning scenes when she was so young and desperate and had all these youthful energy and then change physically later on. Pawel was always showing us parts that we already shot before we moved on to the next time period. It made it much easier to build these characters and understand them.
Your transformation from the beginning to end was stunning — it reminded me a bit of how Meryl Streep changed physically in Sophie’s Choice.
Thank you, that’s quite a compliment!
You’ve gotten so much attention around the world for this film, would you consider doing some work in this country?
Oh, yes, I’d love to. I’ve actually done a couple of films in English already, including Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton. I also speak French and German and have worked in those languages. It’s funny, because I see different parts of my personality come out when I act in different languages. It’s like playing different instruments in an orchestra, it’s a different sound. I think my personality works better with Polish and French but I’m open to all.
Well, American directors will be beating your door down after they see this film.
I actually just had a meeting with Steven Spielberg. He loved Cold War and he saw Ida three times so he wanted to meet me. I hope I’m allowed to talk about that!