It wasn’t until years after his parents died that the director Pawel Pawlikowski saw how to transform their tumultuous postwar romance into a film. Their on- and off- and on-again relationship spanned decades and took them from Communist Poland to Germany.
“With time it became more of a story,” he says, “the matrix of all love stories.”
Mr. Pawlikowski tells a fictionalized version in “Cold War,” which Amazon Studios will release in theaters on Friday. The Polish- and French-language movie won Mr. Pawlikowski the best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and on Monday was named to the Academy Awards shortlist for foreign films, which will eventually be narrowed to five nominees.
Joanna Kulig stars as Zula, a singer, and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor, who meet in 1949 when she auditions for a Polish folk-music troupe in which he is a pianist. In the shadow of Stalinism, Zula admits early on that she has been spying on Wiktor for the government but would never reveal anything damaging.
The story of passion, betrayal and cultural displacement makes daring leaps in time, now and then moving ahead by a couple of years. Wiktor defects to Germany, then goes to Paris, where he and Zula are reunited and an unhappy Zula dances on top of a bar to “Rock Around the Clock” in the jazz club where he plays piano. Music, from folk to jazz, infuses the black-and-white film, with Ms. Kulig doing her own singing, as the couple’s enduring connection finally leads them back to Poland in 1964.
Mr. Pawlikowski, 61 years old, left Warsaw for London with his mother when he was 14. He has spent most of his adult life in the U.K., where he made films including “My Summer of Love” (2004), starring the then-unknown Emily Blunt.
He returned to Poland to make “Ida,” which in 2015 won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. “Ida,” about a young nun in postwar Poland who learns that she is Jewish, helped him see how to re-create his parents’ saga.
“I realized it shouldn’t literally be their story,” he says. Although their real names were Wiktor and Zula, he was a doctor and she was a ballet dancer. His mother was in a folk ensemble, but unlike Zula didn’t con her way in or serve prison time—two aspects of the on-screen character that demonstrate, as Mr. Pawlikowski says, “she does whatever she needs to do” to survive.
“Ida” helped Mr. Pawlikowski find a style that he would later use to make “Cold War.” “I realized it could be told elliptically, not like these biopic-y things where you go from A to B to C, where there’s always cause and effect,” he says. “That makes films untrue because there’s never a single cause.”
Shooting in black-and-white resulted in a more vibrant look, Mr. Pawlikowski says. “If you went for colors of Poland at that time, it would be basically murky and gray.”
Ms. Kulig prepared for the “sardonic tone” Mr. Pawlikowski wanted by watching video of Lauren Bacall. As Zula evolves from faux-peasant folk musician to world-weary torch singer, Ms. Kulig also found inspiration in Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse.
“That kind of personality, very talented but at the same time with something difficult in their childhood, and how they destroyed themselves in the end,” says Ms. Kulig, “that was quite similar to what Zula did.”
Because Wiktor and Zula’s lives coincided with the Cold War, like his parents, Mr. Pawlikowski says it is impossible to sort out how much of their relationship is shaped by political realities and how much by character. “It’s both. Wiktor would not have had to leave the country if not for Stalinism in Poland in the early ’50s,” when he, a well-educated man who loves jazz, is urged to play music honoring land reform. “And there’s also a character problem because they have very different temperaments.”
Even after Mr. Pawlikowski won the Oscar for “Ida,” it wasn’t easy to get “Cold War” made. “You’re not exactly back to square one, but we had to stitch together about 15 sources of financing,” he says. “If you tell a story in Polish with actors who are not known world-wide and in black and white, the algorithm tells you it’s not going to make a lot of money.”
He is betting against that algorithm. “Although this is a very weird and eccentric story, most people have one love story that maybe they abandoned or that’s stayed with them,” he says. “All these shenanigans of love, most people have had in some shape or form.”