Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig
Watch Cold War online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
In the years after WWII, Poland was gobbled up by the Soviet Union to serve as a satellite nation. Every facet of daily life was controlled by the Kremlin. Socialist art had to celebrate the humble worker, Joe Stalin and the inherent awesomeness of communism, even if the Poles were apprehensive or not used to such demands. Any other function in art was deemed suspect and those who yearned for artistic freedom could be sent to the gulags of Siberia for a spot of political re-education. Against this stifling historic-political backdrop, Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted an exquisitely melancholic love story about star-crossed lovers who are kept apart by personal circumstances as much as the nosey state.
Beginning in 1949 with the setting up of a music and dance school, teacher Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets troubled student Zula (Joanna Kulig) when she auditions for a place. It isn’t love at first sight, but Wiktor is intrigued by the girl who, rumour has it, she murdered her father. As the school tours Poland and then East Berlin, Wiktor and Zula fall in love. This most natural occurrence, however, comes with a paranoid sting: Zula tells her man straight that she’s informing on him, and the communists think he’s a bit suspect. They want to know what he did during the war and find out about his political allegiances, his life story. As the years pass by, Wiktor defects to the west (to Paris) and rarely sees Zula. When they are brought together, it’s brief and passionate stuff, but so fleeting as to be cruel.
Filmed in gorgeous monochrome by Lukasz Zal, who also shot Pawlikowski’s gem Ida, and using a 4:3 aspect ratio, Cold War is at once an arthouse movie and playful genre deconstruction. The couple-who-cannot-ever-truly-be-together angle recalls Casablanca, while Wiktor’s exile status and intellectual credentials make him a marked man and envelopes the drama in an Orwellian atmosphere, one it never wholly commits to, but is used teasingly and to excellent effect. That Wiktor made his illegal escape to Paris is ironic, however, for his heart always yearns for Zula and his homeland.
The deep-focus cinematography gives landscape shots of snowy country lanes, mist-covered woods, muddy fields or tall grass bristling in the wind a phantasmal beauty, while the Paris-set scenes burst with a riotous liveliness and sense of ‘cool’ seen in old Time or Life magazine spreads of chic nightclubs. But the joie de vivre is hollow and fraudulent. Zula and Wiktor attempt to play at being content and creative (they record an album), but their Parisian sojourn is mostly fuelled by booze to numb their individual discontentment and collective pain. An electrifying scene of Zula dancing to Rock Around the Clock – in an almost bratty drunken display intended to get Wiktor’s attention – is a dreamy sequence capturing the grand love between the pair not with words but solely through action. The fiery blonde dances with strangers, climbs on a bar and falls off, the following cut shows Wiktor struggling to open the door to their room with Zula sound asleep in his arms; he will always be there for her when she falls. It’s a moment to make the heart swoon.
At 84 minutes, Cold War is a masterclass in economic storytelling and sublime filmmaking, allowing the performances and themes to achieve extraordinary depths of emotion and resonance. For it is beyond tragedy, that Zula and Wiktor’s love for one another is too complicated and messy for this world or, rather, they are unable to flourish properly either at home or abroad. Partly it’s because their personalities set off the disastrous ‘can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em’ dynamic and partly because their exiled status makes them potential enemies of the people, therefore they can never feel settled.
Where Hollywood would drip on syrupy sentiment by the ladle and pump up the melodrama to make nuances and complexities less nuanced and complex, director Pawlikowski opts for something far more restrained and moody, yet Cold War is also a film burning with passion, desire and packed with musical numbers and scenes set in bars, clubs and theatres. The result on screen is a haunting and unforgettable work from a truly great director.
Cold War is available now in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.