A beautiful and bittersweet ballad of love during the Cold War
There’s a lot of stuff vying for your attention in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War. The star-crossed romance that provides its central narrative, the film’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography, and use of the Academy aspect ratio. Then there’s Joanna Kulig’s radiant performance as singer Zula, the movie’s chapter-led structure, and the ebullient musical interludes that pepper nearly every bit of it. In fact, it’s easy to see how the film could have seemed a bit contrived or shallow, but UK-based writer/director Pawlikowski brings together the various elements seamlessly and with genuine panache. This is, at times, a grim tale, but one with pace and energy to burn, the style of its telling never allowed to eclipse its substance.
A belated follow up the Oscar-winning Ida (2013), it continues Pawlikowski’s excavation of Poland’s painful post-WWII past. Set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s – in Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia as well as the director’s homeland – it tells the story of a passionate affair between Kulig’s Zula and brooding musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). He chooses the young woman – whom we are told is just out of prison for attacking her father – to be part of a song and dance troupe bringing traditional Polish folk music to the rest of the country.
The pair fall in love but Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the project when it is hijacked to extoll the virtues of Stalinism. On a visit to East Berlin with the troupe, he defects to the west, but Zula changes her mind about joining him at the very last minute, seemingly ending their relationship in the process. Suffice to say, it does no such thing.
Fans of Ida will see similarities – the 4:3 aspect ratio, Pawlikowski’s eye for black and white images both austere and beautiful, and an infinitely charming central female character, although force-of-nature Zula is light years from Ida’s guileless trainee nun. It’s clearly intended as a companion piece to the earlier film and, after winning the Best Director prize at Cannes, seems destined for the same level of success.
Loosely based on the lives of Pawlikowski’s parents, Cold War is unabashedly romantic and unapologetically old fashioned. It reminded me of other movies with epic, troubled affaires d’amour at their centre, including the mighty Casablanca (1942) and Spanish animation Chico & Rita (2010), another love story played out with political upheaval – Cuba’s revolution – as its backdrop. This is a far bleaker work though. Pawlikowski never labours the point but the state of their relationship is meant to mirror the political landscape of the time. The way ill-suited Zula and Wiktor try and fail to understand each other, play games with and betray each other, whilst remaining somehow intrinsically linked and diminished when apart, is Cold War Europe in a nutshell.
The fact the film is broken up into short, punchy chapters means proceedings move along at a fair old clip – in fact, I’ve seen action movies that would struggle to keep up with Cold War’s pace. You’d think it might lend the film a broken, “bitty” quality but never does. Instead, Pawlikowski pitches us forward in time, switching locations as he goes, challenging us to keep up. It’s a breathless, but effective storytelling technique, that keeps you on the backfoot. These were heady, febrile times and the director perfectly captures that excitement, nervous energy and sense of jeopardy.
Wiktor and Zula are eventually reunited in Paris but soon come to realise being out of Poland is no instant balm for their fractious relationship’s ills. The pair can’t truly be themselves in their homeland because of the suffocating Stalinist state, but are just as compromised elsewhere too. Despite Zula’s burgeoning singing career, they are outsiders – rootless, dislocated. Loss of authenticity and identity are important themes here; how every bit of you is shaped by where you come from, and what you give up when you step outside of that. It’s right there in the way Cold War’s musical moments evolve over the course of its 90-minute running time. We open with jarring, discordant Polish folk music – earthy, traditional, untrammelled – while, towards the end, Zula sings a ridiculous novelty song about bongos to a well-heeled concert audience. The implication something precious has been lost is hard to shake, that Zula, Wiktor and Poland itself are not who or what they are supposed to be.
Kulig is sublime here – Zula is hot-tempered and truculent, with a ruthlessness born of bitter experience, but also tender, passionate and gloriously unpredictable. You have no problem believing she’s the “woman of my life” as Victor calls her or that he’d risk his freedom and very existence just for a chance to see her again. I fancy the scene in which she dances to “Rock Around The Clock” in a packed Parisian bar is destined to be one of the year’s most memorable and celebrated. The same goes for Pawlikowski’s wonderful film.
Cold War is released in the UK on 31st August
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