CANNES, France (AFP) — Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski, who won best director at the Cannes film festival Saturday, has touched on some of Poland’s most sensitive taboos without trying to make political films.
He picked up his Academy Award for “Ida,” a haunting and controversial drama which lays bare the ghosts of the Nazi occupation of the country and post-war Stalinist rule.
While the central character of that film was a novice nun, his Cannes winner “Cold War” is a tempestuous love story based on his own parents that flits back and forth across the Iron Curtain.
Critics swooned over the film, shot in black-and-white with a sumptuous jazz soundtrack, and particularly the performance Pawlikowski drew from Joanna Kulig, who plays a singer with a rebellious streak.
Many compared her to the late French screen legend Jeanne Moreau.
Although Pawlikowski has lived most of his life outside Poland, in Britain, France, and Italy, he has declared that “my baggage [is] in Polish.”
And he got into hot water at home during the festival after he told AFP that he and “Ida” had been “blacklisted” by the nationalist government. Warsaw denied the claim.
As he accepted his award, Pawlikowski said it was “a rare piece of good news” for his country.
He later added that there “is more to Poland than you see on the news now.”
“I don’t make political films and I don’t like watching them. I prefer to tell stories about characters who have complicated relationships, but in a world where history weighs on them, that becomes political,” he told AFP.
Born in Warsaw in 1957, Pawlikowski left then communist Poland for Britain when he was 14 with his mother, a ballerina turned university lecturer, after his parents divorced.
He studied philosophy and literature in London and Oxford before making a series of extraordinary documentaries for the BBC in the late 1980s as eastern Europe shook off communism.
His work, which includes “Dostoevsky’s Travels,” “Serbian Epics” — about former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic — and “Tripping with Zhirinovsky” won awards including an Emmy and the Prix Italia.
Although he also spent time in Germany, he worked mostly in the UK, where he earned two BAFTA awards, including one in 2000 for “Last Resort” followed up in 2004 by “My Summer of Love,” a bittersweet lesbian love drama set in Yorkshire.
When his wife suddenly fell ill and died in 2006, Pawlikowski gave up film-making for several years to raise his two children in Oxford and teach at Britain’s National Film School.
Grandmother died in Auschwitz
After stints in Paris and London, Pawlikowski returned to his native Warsaw in 2013, more than two decades after the collapse of communism, a move that inspired him to create “Ida.”
Shot with uncompromising honesty, the black-and-white film that delves into Poland’s painful wartime and post-war Stalinist-era history, sparked harsh criticism at home but earned both a BAFTA and an Oscar.
The film tells the story a young woman in 1960s communist Poland who learns that she is Jewish as she is about to take her vows as a Catholic nun. She was raised by nuns after her parents were murdered under Nazi occupation during the Holocaust.
The plot-twist draws on an important discovery Pawlikowski, who is a Catholic, himself made as a teenager when he learnt that his paternal grandmother was Jewish and had died in Auschwitz.
“For years, we never spoke about it,” Pawlikowski told Newsweek Polska in 2013. “I found papers saying that my grandmother had died in Auschwitz. Who my grandfather was and how he died remained a mystery.”
Ida explores topics that are taboo in Poland — including the killing of Jews during the Nazi occupation by Poles with whom they sought refuge, a fact swept under the rug in the post-war period.
It triggered demands in Poland for Pawlikowski to add a commentary underscoring Nazi Germany’s primary role in the Holocaust.
Aside from film-making, Pawlikowski has a passion for jazz and a knack for languages; he speaks six, including English, German, French, and Russian as well as his native Polish.