Star Katarzyna Wajda and director Xawery Żulawski discuss making HBO Max’s Polish crime thriller Odwilż (The Thaw), which centres on a murder investigation and the search for a missing baby led by a detective facing a personal crisis.
Polish crime thriller Odwilż (The Thaw) opens on the banks of a river, where a woman’s body is found frozen in the icy waters that flow against the backdrop of a grey industrial landscape. After being assigned to investigate, Detective Katarzyna Zawieja soon discovers this is far from just a murder case – the victim gave birth shortly before her death.
The recently widowed officer then begins a search for the missing newborn. But what sets her apart from other television detectives is the personal crisis she is facing, from grieving the loss of her husband to handling single motherhood, as she struggles to balance her crumbling personal life with her outward appearance as a perfect police officer.
“What really appealed to me was that we have a character who we find at a very difficult moment in her life,” says Katarzyna Wajda, who plays the lead character. “She tries to maintain her composure but we just watch her disintegrate through the six episodes as she strips away the layers she’s built up in order to survive.
“She has a difficult relationship with her daughter – she doesn’t know how to be a good, caring, loving mother because she has so many wounds. It was interesting to compare that side of her with the cop side, where she’s very precise. The case also becomes a way to save her private life, because if she finds the child at the end, she can in some way find herself and do something good. There’s so much she feels she’s done wrong or missed or hasn’t noticed in her private life.”
Wajda describes her character as very focused and stubborn, with a sixth sense for police work that fails her when it comes to her personal life.
“She’s stuttering there, but when she starts working and she’s in her field, that’s where she feels more comfortable,” she says. “She’s running away to do her job because she has to hold on to something. She prefers to do that as opposed to saying, ‘OK, I’m depressed, I need help, I’m not going to get out of bed today.’ She just holds on to her work. We show that she’s just a woman, she’s not a superhero, but she has to show that she’s tougher than all the guys and is the best at everything.”
The actor was aided by the fact that filming took place in chronological order, meaning her performance could follow the character’s downward trajectory and Wajda didn’t have to bounce from scene to scene.
“It wasn’t like I was crying on the first day of shooting. [The emotion] was built up, so that really helped,” she says. In fact, Wajda was given a lot of freedom from director Xawery Żulawski (Bird Talk) to play each scene as she saw fit. “He always said, ‘Don’t act, be. Just be in the scene. If you don’t feel like crying or yelling, don’t pretend and don’t do it. Just find a way to portray the character.’
“We really concentrated on being very slow and careful, not laying out all the cards right away, so there’s a secret to the character you unravel slowly as you go through the script. I had to reach those moments, those emotional scenes, which I was very nervous about because it’s a load of things you have to burst out with. But it all worked out. I had to the time to build it up.”
Working on a series that blends crime story and psychological thriller, Żulawski purposely wanted to gradually reveal Zawieja’s numerous emotional layers as the police investigation picks up speed. The central character was a key reason the director decided to work on The Thaw, his interest piqued by the opportunity to delve into her complex emotional state.
“When I take a story on, I am the kind of director whose first steps are to try to build up every part of the technique we have to use. For me, it’s very important to find the cinematographic language,” he says. “We are creating a world; we’re not shooting a documentary film about a woman in the Polish police. We tried to create a whole different world that could be appealing to a universal audience.”
First announced in late 2019, The Thaw was filmed in Szczecin and Warsaw, though the city where the story is set is not specifically defined. Żulawski describes it as “somewhere in the north.” Instead, he wanted to focus on creating the right atmosphere for this piece of Baltic noir, which is inspired by similar series from Scandinavia but uses a different colour palette to help it stand apart.
“We tried to find very strong colours like gold and blue to incorporate into this gloomy atmosphere,” he says. “Then with the camera, we said if it’s a psychological study, maybe it would be nice to dehumanise the camera.” The crew used a mechanical arm known as a jib to carry the camera and create a “choreographic ballet” with the actors by moving slowly around.
“From a psychological point of view, in many scenes we weren’t present,” Żulawski says about the crew. “Only the camera was with Katarzyna. It was like a drone watching her. It meant she could have the feeling of being alone, which was very important. There weren’t many eyes watching her while she was acting; she could just be private with the camera.”
On set, that meant Wajda had to change the way she moved, walked and talked to portray Zawieja, following extensive conversations with the director. “I had to let go of my energy in life,” she says. “There was a cue sign he had – ‘Cat moves’ – so when we started a scene, he would say, ‘OK, concentrate. Cat moves, go!’ Then I knew everything we were doing just had to dance together with the camera, like it was choreographed, because if I did it too fast, the camera wouldn’t catch me. Or if I walked too slow, the camera also wouldn’t grab me. So there was a lot of practice to create a feeling of being one with the camera.”
Wajda calls herself an intuitional actor, who plays scenes on the spot with the actors around her. She can also take herself out of character during breaks in filming, laughing and joking off camera before going back to work.
“When I’m doing scenes where I have to cry and be very emotional, I tend to go into myself and I’m quieter and try to find those emotions I have to use to portray that moment,” she says. “It’s stressful. I feel there’s a responsibility to do it in a real way and not to pretend something.”
The actor also “embraced” the responsibility she felt in taking on her first leading role, having previously appeared in Polish films such as Jestés Bogiem (You Are God) and series Kruk (Raven).
“It was something I was so happy with,” she says of being number one on the call sheet. “Once I felt that me and Xawery connected and we had the mutual trust and chemistry we needed to understand the character, and when I could sense what he wanted and he trusted me in how I wanted to portray certain moments, it was just so enjoyable to go beyond the roles I have been given before.
“The characters I’ve played in the past have been much lighter; they were the light and the guidance for the main characters. They were wives, they were mothers, but in a totally different way from this. Here it was much more complicated and I could do something different. I really appreciate that I was able to do that.”
The Covid-19 pandemic presented Wajda, her fellow castmates and the crew with a unique challenge when production was forced to stop for six months, halfway through the schedule. Żulawski used the hiatus to edit the first three episodes and take a step back from the work that had already been done to look at it with a fresh perspective.
“We could have some creative discussions about how to continue the story once we were back on set,” says the director. “We could also have some kind of perspective and conclusions about the characters we were building and what we should improve.”
With The Thaw launching on HBO Max today, Żulawski jokes that “a crime story with a lead female character is not something we discovered yesterday.” But he believes the series carries the standard of quality associated with HBO series from the US and around the world, coupled with the talent of a team given the time and freedom to do their best work.
“Time and money is the crucial thing. When you have enough time and enough money to shoot it properly, you get good visuals and good storytelling,” he says. “Although it’s a very distant world we are talking about, and although it’s a criminal story with a police character involved, it touches things and emotions we all go through in life. We all make mistakes, we have all lost someone we love and we also have kids or families. There’s something very close to all of us.”