CANNES, France — While the rest of the world, and the Academy Awards, were celebrating Pawel Pawlikowski's film "Ida" as one of the best films of 2013, the quiet, black-and-white film was swept up into political debate back in Poland, Pawlikowski's home country.
It still mystifies the filmmaker why Poland's ruling right-wing party, which took power in late 2015, painted his film as "anti-Polish." ''Ida" was about a young orphaned woman in the 1960s on the cusp of taking her vows to be a nun when she discovers her Jewish heritage and that her parents were murdered by a Polish peasant during World War II.
"Why did they get so heated up about 'Ida'? It's a black-and-white film. They turned it into a big campaign issue. It did help them win the election, unfortunately," Pawlikowski said in an interview. "We'll see what they come up with now."
Pawlikowski premiered his much anticipated follow-up to "Ida," ''Cold War," at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was immediately hailed as a companion piece to "Ida" and a likely contender for Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or. Like "Ida," it's gorgeously composed in black-and-white and a 4:3 "academy ratio." Also like "Ida," it depicts the ways an oppressive regime can warp and ruin the lives under it.
"Cold War" is the first Polish film in competition at Cannes in 37 years.
"I'm sure the minister of culture is really pissed off about this," said Pawlikowski. "They'd love to have a film in Cannes, but why this guy? 'Ida' was taken off the schedule on state TV because it was deemed to be "anti-Polish." I never meant it as anti-anything. But these people can't think in anything but ideological terms."
"Cold War," set during the 1940s and 1950s of Poland's communist rule, is about an ill-fated romance between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a composer and pianist, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer. They meet at a newly formed academy dedicated to preserving Polish folk music traditions. Once nationalistic pressures descend on the school, they flee the country.
The film is dedicated to Pawlikowski's parents and the characters were named for them. They lived, he said, in a kind of "permanent war."
"There was a big love at first sight," the 60-year-old director said. "Then they quarreled and he betrayed her, she took revenge. Then they got together again and had me and then they quarreled again. He left the country, and then she married an English guy and left the country with me. Then they met again abroad, got together again and dumped the spouses. They started living together again and quarreled again."
"And of course exile has an impact on a relationship," he added. "Suddenly, you meet again and this person looks different in a different context."
Pawlikowski lived much of his adult life in London and Paris. After his first wife died from a sudden illness and their two children were grown, he returned to Warsaw. Following a career in international film (his "My Summer Love" was Emily Blunt's screen debut), going back to his native country transformed as a filmmaker.
"As soon as I touched down in Poland, I just felt on firm ground," Pawlikowski said. "Suddenly, there was a sense of conviction about all my choices. And also with age, I said, 'I want to just keep things simple.' I've complicated things again since because I got married. But at the time, I was living this monastic life, a bit like Ida."
He remains committed to working in Poland, though he notes with a chuckle, he's content not making films, too — just teaching and "living a life." Pawlikowski has a third black-and-white film in mind and is also prepping a movie on the Russian writer and political dissident Eduard Liminov.
Andrzej Pawluszek, an adviser to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, dismissed the director's assertion that he has been blacklisted or otherwise punished for his films. He noted that "Cold War" was co-financed by the state-run Polish Film Institute, which also helped bankroll the film's promotion in Cannes.
"Poland has no blacklist of artists," Pawluszek said. "There is full creative freedom in Poland. Opponents of the current government, such as a great director Agnieszka Holland or an amazing actress Krystyna Janda, enjoy full creative freedom."
"I understand that director Pawlikowski does not like the government, but he should not attack us with false accusations," added Pawluszek.
But for Pawlikowski, "Cold War" reflects the current political climate in Poland. In February, President Andrzej Duda signed a bill making it illegal to blame Poland for Holocaust crimes committed by German Nazis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the law "baseless" and warned against Holocaust denial.
"In Poland, because of the politics there — which are not pleasant — it suddenly made sense to be making films there," he said. "Not political films, but just artistic films, films that deal with the human soul and its paradoxes. Films that don't slant history or try to explain it. I think it's important to make films that are about essential things, with an existential dimension, and in the current climate, that in itself is a political thing." ___
This story has been updated to correct the names of Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig.