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Jazz Through The Films Of
Paweł Pawlikowski

Blog
Jazz Through The Films Of Paweł Pawlikowski

09.01.2019

Article by: Leyla Aksu

From his early award-winning documentaries to later narrative features, director Paweł Pawlikowski has offered audiences a stream of dream-like cinematic meditations throughout his career. Foregrounding flowing, loosely woven narratives with history unfolding in the background, the director has gained increasing international acclaim with 2013’s Oscar-winner Ida and the new Zimna wojna (Cold War), for which he received the Best Director award at Cannes. Both tales are affectingly realized in a minimal monochrome and set against the backdrop of post-war Poland, while Pawlikowski also subtly advances the long-standing tradition of jazz in film.

Ever since 1927’s Jazz Singer captivated audiences with its use of sound, marking a historic shift in cinema, the jazz genre has occupied a special place on the silver screen. While this rule-breaking music became a sign of rebellion and change across the globe, it also found historic resonance in Poland specifically. Becoming a symbol of freedom, initially suppressed under Stalin (and later under martial law in the 80’s) but slowly allowed behind the curtain in the 1950’s and 60’s, jazz claimed a spot for itself in the country’s emerging subculture, as well as a wave of new filmmakers, like Andrzej Warja and Roman Polanski.

Born right around this time in Poland in the late-1950’s and later seeking asylum in the UK with his parents at the age of 14, Pawlikowski began his own foray into cinema with award-winning documentaries, including Dostoevsky's Travels (1991), Serbian Epics (1992), and Tripping with Zhirinovsky (1995). His subsequent turn to narrative film began with 2000’s Last Resort, followed by the critically acclaimed My Summer of Love (2004). Yet despite his brilliant achievements in film career, Pawlikowski never considered his filmmaking to be career-oriented, rather developing his films and working in parallel with his own life: “I'm not a professional filmmaker, it's just a little part of my life, and it's not how I define myself. It's not really important whether I make the film in Poland, England, or wherever. The films are always the result of where I am, what I've discovered, and what's in my head.”

As such, 2013’s Ida saw the director return to his home country, to the years of his childhood, for a film set in 1960’s Poland: “It’s a time I feel close to, but it’s also a fascinating moment in our history. After the war, after Stalinism and the police state, came this sudden explosion of possibilities: literature, cinema and the most brilliant modern classical music. All this pent-up stuff just came bursting out.” Describing the film as a “love letter to Poland,” Pawlikowski built off his memories, choosing to film in black-and-white, as he “remember[ed] that time.”

Following the young Ida (Anna), who is about to become a nun, as she uncovers family secrets, Pawlikowski’s use of music becomes an essential component of the world, which he’s created. “A lot of it is just pop songs from my childhood which got under my skin when I was a kid… They’re kind of signs of life after Stalinism,” he says. While only using diegetic sound until the end of the film, with no composed score, here jazz represents something outside of Ida’s own experience. Working in John Coltrane’s Naima, the piece presents her with the possibility of a life of freedom and choice, as it did for so many: “There’s something spiritual in jazz music, especially in a tune like Naima… It was a piece that I wanted to use to seduce Ida. That’s how she falls in love or is enveloped by the world of Szymon, the saxophonist…”

In this year’s Cold War, Pawlikowski takes us back to this sparse and arresting black-and-white landscape once more. On his return, again, to Poland, he remarks, “It’s what happens with age sometimes… You find the past is interesting and that it holds a lot of keys to the present. I suppose I also have a lot of unfinished business. My history, my parents’ history, this country…” And so tackling a story inspired by his own parents, following a tempestuous affair spanning years and geographic boundaries, music once again brings Pawlikowski’s characters, this time Wiktor and Zula, together and in contact with the outside world. The film charts a melodic journey that mirrors the arc of its characters, intertwining their story with folk ballads, torch songs, jazz, rock, and blues, as “music became the holy spirit of the whole story.”

Each song in the film was selected by the director himself, from Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway to Ella Fitzgerald, the latter offering a special familial connection: “I love Ella, and she also happened to be my father’s favorite singer. So there was some echo of him,” he says. While the film’s Mazurek folk ensemble is based on the real Mazowsze musical troupe, founded in 1948 and still going today, the traditional pieces placed throughout the film are culled from their repertoire. “I always like using music dramatically as a character in the film,” Pawlikowski says. And as such, these songs come back again and again, repeated in different adaptations as the central couple’s relationship shifts alongside them, changing like variations on a theme.

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