Oscar-nominated romance unfolds behind, in front of, the Iron Curtain
Cold War (2019)
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig
From the very first note, the musical, mid-century romance Cold War exudes the stark beauty of a Bergman film. Modeled (loosely, we’ll assume) after the tumultuous real-life romance of writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s parents, the film is a familiar yet painful tale of lovers crossed as much by themselves as by the stars. Triple Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Directing and Best Cinematography, the film is shot in a moody black and white (mostly in the gravel gray spectrum) that belies the roiling passions underneath its historical story.
In post World War II Eastern Europe, a respected musical director/conductor wanders in and out of tiny villages in Communist Poland, recording a catalogue of fading folk songs. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, Poland’s version of a young Sam Neill) is working as an impromptu ethnomusicologist at the urging of his new bosses in Russia. The idea is to preserve the history and culture of local dance and music, all but eradicated in the destructive sweep of World War II.
With the backing of the new Soviet government and the help of a kindred musical associate (Agata Kulesza), Wiktor sets up a training academy for a prospective traveling arts ensemble and interviews a crowd of hungry would-be performers. Among them is Zula (Joanna Kulig, the Slavic version of Patricia Arquette). Pretty but hard-faced, Zula is unlike her naïve rural competitors. She’s a city gal with a tough past, but she’s clearly got an untutored natural talent. Wiktor becomes quietly obsessed with the girl, bringing her aboard as his prize pupil—and eventually his lover.
Wiktor’s arts ensemble finds great success in the ensuing years spreading the gospel of traditional Polish art and culture across Eastern Europe. In time, however, the big bosses back in Moscow decide songs about mountains and wheat harvests aren’t nationalistic enough. (This is the Soviet Union, after all.) Much to Wiktor’s chagrin, beautiful folk ballads are soon replaced with new songs about how great of a guy Stalin is.
As the rebranded musical propaganda machine tours through Berlin, circa 1951, Wiktor concocts a mad grab for freedom. He and Zula will cross the border into West Germany and take up residence in Paris. Unfortunately for Wiktor, Zula doesn’t share his romantic optimism. Her newfound musical fame has granted her a certain level of comfort. What will the Western world offer her—other than freedom and love? When the fateful night arrives, she leaves him stranded at the border checkpoint, morosely smoking cigarettes and contemplating the future. He defects anyway.
While Wiktor settles in to life as a struggling musician in jazz-crazed ’50s France, Zula hides out in rule-filled Communist Poland. Despite the political separation, Wiktor and Zula cross paths several times, with the majority of Cold War charting their hot-and-cold, on-and-off love affair over the course of the ensuing decades.
Under the meticulous eye of its director, Mr. Pawlikowski (The Last Resort, My Summer of Love, Ida), and the expert lens of its cinematographer, Lukasz Zal (who worked with Pawlikowski on Ida), Cold War starts out looking positively post-apocalyptic. As Wiktor wanders through the wintry landscapes, ruined churches and abandoned villages of Eastern Europe, viewers are given a harsh visual sense of the devastation World War II wrought. In addition to the luminous black-and-white photography, the film is also shot in a rigid “Academy” aspect ratio of 1:37 (resulting in an old-fashioned, nearly square picture). Gradually, as the film wends its way toward the streets of Paris, the blacks deepen, the whites sharpen and the film gains a more romantic, Old Hollywood glow. And yet the passions, both positive and negative, remain. This is a story of people imprisoned by circumstance, geography and political boundaries—but also by their own emotional shortcomings. It’s a tale of love, heartbreak and jealously set against the backdrop of epic political and social change.
A sad ballad juxtaposing the intimate with the international, Cold War is a masterpiece of economy and image. In a series of brief but highly elucidative vignettes spread across 15 years, the film maps out the often seismic changes common to all affairs—the emotional as well as the political.