Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
1h 24min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)
The picture looks perfect but the love is strained, in Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely shot, carefully paced, and exceedingly wistful Cold War-set drama. It is the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Ida, and like that movie, it is set in an oppressed and oppressive Poland (though in later acts, we move to various other European countries either in or free from the Soviet Union) during the height of the iron curtain divide across Europe, and is shot in gorgeous monochrome, with a slow pace and lengthy shots that encourage contemplation. Personally, I fell for Cold War’s visual approach right away, appreciated the fine cast, whilst still wishing there was a little more fire in the love affair that the entire thing hinges on. Bleak and occasionally violent though this film is (even as it is beautiful to look at), one thing that should stay with you though, is the power of the music.
The main duo who’s love affair we are to trace through its up and downs across the Iron Curtain, an undeniably sexy and charismatic pair. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a darkly handsome pianist and composer with intense eyes and a rakish, tall build. He gives off an urbane vibe. Scrappy blonde singer teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig) claims in contrast to be from the country and acts proud of it, whilst looking a bit like a younger Lea Seydoux. Their intense but elliptical affair begins in a wintry and ruined Soviet Poland in the late 1940s, an atmosphere conveyed with immense effectiveness by that aforementioned irresistible monochrome palette. We first meet Wiktor and a fellow broadcaster are they are deep into touring various remote villages with beat-up looking recording equipment, gathering recordings of folk songs whilst hoping to recruit a troupe of young people for a show of authentic traditional Polish song and dance. These youngsters will be billeted in a country house for a month, drilled to within an inch of their lives for various starring roles, and then sent off on tour.
As glorious as this sounds in practice, and as thrilling as it is to see all the a cappella performances by the roster of very talented vocalists the pair pluck from the countryside, the political shadow cast by the rulers of the Polish state is never absent. We learn that the performing amateurs that make the grade will not be allowed the freedom to display their musical talents uninhabited; they are fated to be shown off at theatrical evenings to party officials and politically congenial foreigners. Wiktor is clearly disillusioned by this co-opting of art, which manifests in its most chillingly absurd way when the glass-eyed finalists have to sing an ode to Stalin in a concert hall while an insanely gigantic banner of the dictator unfurls behind them. What keeps him pleasantly distracted is the fact that Zula was one of his chosen finalists, and their affair began almost immediately, despite her total understanding that she was probably chosen for her looks, not her talent. She’s not even from the country and thus suitably ‘rustic’; as their racist and suitably oleaginous political commissar, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyquickly) spots. Zula has a reputation for wildness, which attracts Wiktor (at first). She once attacked her own father with a knife (to stop him mistaking her for his wife, she explains).
As performing musicians forced to play along the Soviet propaganda machine’s lines, Wiktor and Zula daydream about escaping to the creative freedom of the West. A chance comes to make a break for it when the music troupe are sent Paris to show off the superiority and cultural sensitivity of the USSR. But both make a split decision that puts them on opposite sides of the fence: Zula being unwilling to trust that simply flinging it all away for a man she has only known for months is going to be emotionally and physically sustainable. This is where some viewers may choose to depart from Cold War, as, instead of spinning us an affirming tale about love conquering the divide, Pawlikowksi’s film is more keen to quietly emphasise the continuing divide, as these two damaged people never quite find their time and space to blossom, even as the years march on and various stages of political detente and tension change the environments around them (the progression of musical styles and ease of travel helps chart this). Years separate each meeting in various locales spanning Europe, from France to Germany and on to Yugoslavia and elsewhere, Wiktor travelling on a new French passport whilst Zula progresses from travelling under Soviet observation to marrying her way into an Italian passport. Both chance and planned meetings between them don’t begin with tears and melodramatic embraces ; these are two people who have experienced years of separation and have grown used to being apart from each other, even if they still find each other immensely attractive. And as much as they clearly would love to be together, something just seems broken between them.
Cold War can frustrate by not allowing the kind of emotional accessibility that other film’s might as this arc slowly progresses, but you can parse out some sense of the sources of friction during of their global travels: Zula for one thing doesn’t care for the bourgeoisie lifestyle, and is less comfortable being away from Poland than her lover. Wiktor, for one thing, can’t return to Poland to see Zula unless he is prepared to either face years item gulag or betray other emigres. It is as if being wrenched from their home, no matter how oppressive it was, has made the ground too unstable for them to just love and live. At least the film doesn’t shove a load of self-pity in your face, and dark humour is never absent.
But even if Cold War might frustrate some with its emotional distance, darkness, and seeming disinterest in going deep into the motivations of its lovers or anyone else, it sure as hell works as a bleakly beautiful tone poem to this era of divide and exile. Even if Wikto and Zula can’t get into the same rhythm, one thing that does stitch their journey together for us as viewers is the film’s sensational soundtrack and striking locations, most of which we experience via some superbly-choreographed live performances ranging from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland performed in concert halls to sultry jazz bands belting out the greats in smoky Paris basement bars. And all of it shot in the ‘slow’ style that has lovers of transcendental filmmaking such as Paul Schrader so enamoured of Pawlikowksi. Thus, although it is not a perfect film, Cold War’s brisk 82 minutes offers more than enough for your eyes and ears.