Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Screenplay: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza
Runtime: 85 Minutes
Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski who has actually spent a majority of his life in the UK, but constantly looked back in earlier documentary work toward his European roots before transitioning to fictional features. Stepping closer with each film to exploring his Polish heritage, his last film Ida became the first Polish film to win the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film.
While Ida used it’s low-key presentation and road movie narrative structure as a means of exploring the historical pain of Poland in the mid-20th century, Cold War couldn’t be stepping away further from its morose perspective, and engages with the disruption and pollution of socio-political barriers post-war in a manner that is almost jubilant; a miniaturised romantic epic that charts decades in the lives of two lovers – composer Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and performer Zuzanna "Zula" Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) – who meet under the communist, Soviet-allied Polish state.
The story spreads against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. At their meeting as members of a troupe recording ‘authentic’ fold songs that delve into sorrowful peasantry tales, Zula’s audition grabs Wiktor as she sings a tune from a Russian film she had seen in passing. This immediate fascination he has in her – and she in him – is what pulls them together, as well as the open fact that Zula is reporting on him in the early days of their relationship. It is one driven by passion, and at an impasse in which they have the opportunity to defect from East Berlin, their fates face the first of many impactful divergencies.
In other hands, this could so easily be presented as a swooning melodrama, but Pawlikowski’s approach is to present the audience with the real smaller pieces of a much larger canvas, with only the most significant moments and exchanges being offered to us over its brief runtime.
The heart tugs that it does pull off are earned and slow, taking his time to lay out the struggle they are facing in the landscape of their changing homeland, as their troupe falls prey to the demands of the authorities to sing music that is more in favour of the agricultural reform at hand, as Stalin’s portrait hands long over later performances in the background.
It’s fascinating to see Pawlikowski construct a romance in which the major factors tearing them apart come from the state of the turbulent political climate of the period, and its ravaging effect on the people and culture it has while supporting those in control.
But the real fireworks are what falls out from this in the aftermath of the film’s opening act. Where the sheen of an idealised life between them is slowly eroded as their initial differences in taste and focus reveal themselves to be the entry points to their divergent paths. There are forces at play meaning a compromise, both personal and artistic, must be struck and a means of surviving, but it throws into question the cosmic bounds to which they are supposedly destined to arrive at being somewhere else entirely, and we follow them right through to the muted devastation if it’s final chapters.
Tomasz Kot is quite breathtakingly handsome and suave as the tortured artist with desires of escaping into western fantasies, to the Paris of his dreams where he can create and get by without the encroachment of the authorities to stamp him out, even if it will come at a cost of him being in near constant hiding. He’s a phenomenal leading presence, but he also has to share the screen with Joanna Kulig – and while their chemistry is intense, she is the one making waves here.
Kulig had a supporting role in his last film but here makes a real name for herself. She’s absolutely dazzling, fixing the gaze of the viewer with such natural promise, and sadness and joy conflicting all at once. She performs as if the camera is only ever catching her off guard, and a beautiful sequence in which she dances to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock in a nightclub in the early hours is blissfully captured in a single take by the returning contribution of Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal and his luminous 4:3 photography.
Cold War is an epic voyage of love seen with fresh eyes and perspective, with Pawlikowski exploring the semi-biographical story of his parents’ early years with clarity, beauty and humility. His repeated patterns of movement over different periods see them explored with new meanings and intentions as the years roll on, but it’s anchored by its magnetic leads and the infectious passion that they exude in every hypnotising frame.