An interview with ‘Cold War’ star Tomasz Kot
If you have ever experienced love, and know it's not all peaches and cream with a fucking cherry on top, you have to go see Pawel Pawlikowski's new film Cold War.
Cold War is one of those films that makes you grab passers-by in the street, shake them by the lapels and violently sob that they need to watch it too.
In these monumentally dumb times when the British people have made a decision to ruin their own prospects and that of their children because Facebook told them Europe is still full of Nazis, and we’re all drenched in a tsunami of cat videos so pervasive it’s like You’ve Been Framed has become the dominant cultural text much as Das Kapital once was in eastern Europe, if you manage to squeeze past the hulking superheroes with the tiny steroid penises, and catch a film which is genuinely smart and beautiful and artistic and moving, it’s like stepping into a hot shower after ten years of being steadily buried in cold shit, and Christ, you want others to experience it too. So: go see Cold War.
Directed by the Oscar winning Pawel Pawlikowski, it’s a stunningly shot black and white Polish film [stay with me] set in post-War War 2 Europe [good things coming soon] filmed in the smaller academy format [if you keep reading I’ll give you a handjob or non-binary job, or whatever you need] and follows the dramatic love affair between a brooding conductor and composer called Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and a wild singer called Zula (Joanna Kulig). The film is short [see, good news!] but manages to span 15 years as it cuts between different years and countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to witness the two grasping at each other, then throwing it all away, only to desire that love again, fighting to reunite, and on we go…this is not romance done easy.
Cold War manages to balance classic Hollywood films like Casablanca, with a New Wave edge, where sharp narrative turns and harsh reality pull apart the ‘true love’ fantasies the two share. This makes for a uniquely satisfying experience which will rip out your heart and kick it into No Man’s Land.
Joanna Kulig is receiving much of the acclaim as the film breaks out of the art house circuit into the mainstream, and she is sensational as this whirlwind of a character, but in the more brooding role Tomasz Kot is equally exceptional, as the movie plays out love’s tortures on his shadowed, crumbling face.
We managed to sit down with Tomasz (who’s very tall but not at all brooding and tortured) about the making of the film and working with the intense Pawlikowski:
The film was a hit in Cannes and seems to be a genuine crossover success – were you expecting it?
It’s all very surprising and exciting for us. The big question was, ‘How will the people of the Western world read our movie?’ It’s a Polish movie, in the Polish language, about Polish folk! At Cannes, when I saw the Hollywood stars and the reception, I started to think about Pawel in a different way – Oh Jesus Christ, he’s really good. It’s almost impossible for this to happen you know? It’s in this strange frame format, everything about it is strange, but it worked, it’s amazing.
You have to conduct and play piano in the film, how long did you prep for the film?
We had 5 or 6 months of rehearsals. I learned conducting. Conducting was difficult – it’s really hard to get it right for the 3 times you do it on film.
You couldn’t fake it and just wave your arms around?
No it was impossible. Pawel wanted every detail like real life. It’s a completely different situation when you are an actor and you have extras in front of you and you have to do that thing for real with professional musicians. Jesus it was really…it needed a lot humility!
Has you played piano before, you looked quite expert?
No I never played piano before. It was really hard to keep an eye-line with Joanna and be in love with her and play exactly right the keys. And Pawel loves music and plays and knows everything about pianos, so there was no possibility to trick him in any way.
What else did you learn as an actor on the set?
A lot of the way of Pawel’s thinking was inspiring for me. For example, the scene where I’m crossing the border, and going into the West, I was really afraid and confused because Pawel didn’t want me to act nervous. “Just smoke cigarettes.” And I said, “I have to do something because everyone knows what this moment is [as I’m waiting for Zula to come with me] I cannot use a cell phone to say ‘hi, where are you?’… maybe they caught her, I don’t know, please let me be more nervous here.” And he said, and this was one of the most important lessons in my life: “I believe people are intelligent and I believe that this black and white picture, and the music, and everything in this story, will act those nerves, so you don’t have to. The conditions around you act it, you just smoke and you just walk.” To have this new consciousness, for me it was something important.
He seems like an intense guy, how did he direct you in scenes?
Pawel has a unique style of directing. It’s about the number of takes. Every day we are doing 50, 60, 70 takes. I had a strange problem – for the first time in my life, I couldn’t fall asleep in a hotel room, because even if I blinked my eyes I saw the frame, I saw Joanna’s eyes, the lights – how can you remove this picture from your head?
I think if you have to do so many takes you have to be with him and be in the process all the time, so it wouldn’t make sense to have a phone for between takes [for a break]. It was good for me, a new experience and I felt I had to understand this, and take some value for me because it’s something new.
How was it with you and Joanna, you’re both on screen together for most of the film?
It was like we were completely alone on set. When you’re an actor, the crew are like Houston and you’re like astronauts, and it’s lonely. It was important for Pawel, it’s based on his parents but no one knows how close it is to his parents, so it was difficult and sometimes you’re completely alone and you work 11 hours in a row, aand we are just together. We had to be like brother and sister. Pawel didn’t like this comparison, he said, “No, no don’t say that.” And I said, “No I’m really sorry, I have my wife and I have two sisters who are both younger than me, so Joanna is like my sister, I have to protect her – but on camera you will see love in my eyes.”
He said he cast you because you’re the only man in Poland who looks like Gregory Peck.
[laughs] Yeah during the filming he’d say, “Oh no I want you more relaxed, more like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall,” and I’d say, “Yes Pawel but it’s very difficult if you have 60 takes and we can’t even turn a little bit to the right, and you say don’t move, don’t move – how can I be relaxed and do my Humphrey Bogart?” We had to meet in the middle of this road.
I paint a lot, so I started thinking about him as a painter. It was my way to deal with this very long preparation of scenes. “Ok it’s one hour…now it’s two hours…this water is being put here now…that’s going over there now…” If you don’t find a way to do something you might go crazy. So I started to think he’s a painter – he’s painting now and I’m part of this painting.
Did making the film make you think about love in a different way? They want to be together but when it happens, life’s not so easy.
Yes, this is the most universal thing. The first stage is this dream stage, where life is gold, and you think this is my life now forever – yeah, right.
I have a simple situation in my life. I have to love and protect my kids and my wife, and Joanna is in the same position as me in love. But there was a time when we realised these people are not happy. They make big steps for love but these aren’t happy characters. But it’s not our story.
Shooting the musical experiences live on camera must have been exciting?
It was amazing – at the beginning there were all these old folk singers in documentary style and it was very touching. And then we have classical musicians and then suddenly, bam, we’re in Paris with jazz musicians. It was strange to spend two months with orchestras doing classical music and this great higher culture and suddenly we go into the jazz world, where you have [puts on American accent] “Yeah man, yeah man.” Every time I tried to play something the jazz men hated me. When I’d be in position at the piano, they’d always say “Hey man, show us your hands,” and I’d show them and they’d say, ‘’Oh man you have such big hands and you’re not a pianist? Fuck you.”
What’s your favourite scene in the film to film?
In the middle of making the movie Pawel said, “I wrote a new ending…it’s only two lines, not much.” So I turned the page on script number 49 [laughs], but when I read these two lines I said, “Oh my God that’s the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read.”
And then when this moment comes to be shot, it really was the end of filming. It had been a very hard journey for us, we were very tired, and we all knew that something was ending. We were afraid of what Pawel was feeling, and all the crew were very touched by this moment as we all knew in one week everyone will in some other place doing different things. But when I saw the moment in the cinema, I saw it’s the most important moment for Pawel and this story – it’s a beautiful ending.
Cold War is out in cinemas now.
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