Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film Cold War, is the tale of two lovers and their troubled relationship, which spans across a decade and across several countries. Like Pawlikowki’s last film, the superb and well crafted Ida, Cold War is shot in black and white, and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with every frame being worthy of hanging in an art gallery. This film is a true representation of the beauty and the magic of cinema. It is clear that Pawlikowski is a lover and a scholar of film, understanding the power of the art form.
This is a very personal film for Pawlikowski, with the film’s two main characters being based very loosely on his own parents. Cold War is a combination of romance and tragedy stretching across the mid 40s to the early 60s, set in against the backdrop of Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. Feeling reminiscent of Casablanca, in the sense that it is a tale of two souls who are destined never to be with one another.
The film begins with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), who is an accomplished pianist and conductor working together with Irena (Agata Kulesza), and administrative bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). To find young people from the Polish countryside to train and perform in a traveling show, meant to showcase the beauty of the simple, rural arts of Polish country folks. Many young people turn up in order to audition, and there’s one that catches Wiktor’s eye, the mysterious and elusive Zula (Joanna Kulig).
It turns out that Zula isn’t really from the countryside, and she was recently let out of detention after she attacked her stepfather when he tried to assault her. Some may be put of by Zula’s past, but Wiktor sees beyond this. There’s something about Zula which Wiktor believes make her capable to become a star. Zula is full of spirit, energy, talent and beauty, but she’s not someone who can be easily controlled. She has a real problem with authority and is a rebel, so is Wiktor. The two of them begin a secret love affair.
The music and dance act is a hit with audiences and with the Polish authorities, who “encourage” Irena and Wiktor to add a few numbers praising the Soviet Union and its leader, Stalin. In one of the film’s more chilling scenes, we see the troupe singing in front of a huge banner of Stalin’s face, declaring him to be their glorious leader. However, this does benefit Wiktor and Irena’s act, as they are able to have the opportunity to travel to places like Berlin and Moscow. They become famous across the USSR and Eastern bloc. As a result, Irena is unhappy with this, but Wiktor is irate, and he convinces Zula to defect with him to the West while they’re in Berlin.
But Zula isn’t so sure, and at the last-minute, she doesn’t show up. Wiktor leaves anyhow, walking off into the nighttime. But, the film doesn’t end there, nor does Zula’s and Wiktor’s romance. In the intervening years, Zula and Wiktor never stop longing for each other, and the narrative picks up whenever they manage to make contact, which happens for various reasons and in the midst of shifting life circumstances for both, with Zula marrying and Wiktor having a relationship with a poet.
Their relationship is, in many ways, very relatable to people across the ages. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, even when they try to move on, the two of them are somehow pulled together. Although, they soon find that being together isn’t always the best thing with them soon bickering, and arguing over the littlest of things. That’s all complicated by the vast distance between the West and the Soviet Union, not geographically so much as ideologically, with the issue of freedom also being the focus of the film. It shows us that even when governments try to control every aspect of an individual, they can’t never control one aspect of what makes us human, our love.
What stood out to me was the use of music in Cold War. Wiktor and Zula are musicians, and their passion for music is just as important as their passion for one and another. Early on most of the music is carefully arranged and haunting Polish folk music, though Wiktor does let loose with some stunning Chopin as well. Not only is there a focus on traditional folk music and classical music, but a focus on Jazz and Rock N’ Roll. With Zula letting loose as she dances to “Rock Around the Clock.” in a Parisian nightclub, flirting with men as Wiktor watches from a distance, becoming both jealous and embarrassed by Zula’s behaviour.
The performances are as a phenomenal as the film’s mise-en-scene, cinematography and sound design. Kot and Kulig have a convincing chemistry, and we fully buy into their relationship. Kot is moody, and brooding, saying very little, but looking very much like the part of a troubled, musical genius. Kulig’s performance reminded me of Harriet Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, just like Monika, Zula is a carefree, sexually liberated young woman who may seem confident on the outside, but is a fragile, troubled, and confused individual who craves freedom. If Kulig doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance, then it will be a crying shame.
Cold War is a work of unspeakable beauty, one that doesn’t leave you when the film ends, and the ending will leave you completely shattered, moving even the toughest of us to tears. And just like Pawlikowski’s previous picture, Ida, this is about the dark heart of Poland itself, but never glamourizes the violence or horror, portraying it in a sensitive manner. This is a beautiful and sympathetic tribute, not only to Pawlikowski’s own parents, but all those who were affected by the Iron curtain and the Soviet union. This is the refined work of an artist at the peak of his powers, there is no doubt in my mind that Cold War will be a timeless classic, that we be studied and loved for years to come.