With Cold War nominated for major awards at this year’s Baftas and Oscars, the Polish film-maker talks about returning to his homeland, and how a tumultuous family life has made a mark on his work
In retrospect, the steps that brought Paweł Pawlikowski back to his native Warsaw seven years ago sound something like fate. He had been uprooted from his home city at 14 in 1971 when his parents divorced and his mother abruptly married an Englishman, spiriting Pawlikowski, without papers, to London. Although he had gone back to Poland to visit family during the Solidarity years and after the Wall came down, the thought of living back near his childhood home came as a surprise.
Not long after his 2004 film My Summer of Love won a Bafta as best British film, Pawlikowski suffered tragedy with the sudden death of his Russian wife. He took himself away from film-making for five years to devote himself to seeing their two teenage children through school in Oxford. He then based himself for a couple of years in Paris, where he made The Woman in the Fifth, an anguished and sometimes impenetrable tale of obsession featuring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. “I wanted to make a commercial film and it became about the least commercial film imaginable,” he says now, with a smile. He felt alien in Paris, still undone by grief, and all that came through in the film. “It became very personal strangely.”