Wiktor, a talented composer, enters the post-war landscape with the government command to form a folk band that could become an identity-forging tool for Poland’s communist, USSR-compliant government. While touring the country in search for folk musicians for the new group, the encounter with enigmatic Zula shakes up his life and starts the tour across Europe in search of the doomed love tangled in a metaphorical cold war.
There’s a lot to be said about the traits of a classic Polish romance, highlighted across centuries of the country’s culture, from the transformation of a lover into the leader of an uprising in Mickiewicz’s Dziady and much-admired folk ballads – in literature and music alike. A staggering trope of political emigration for Polish artists, from the times of Romanticism to the twentieth century, is widely recognised as a factor that shaped the cultural landscape. Then, the preoccupation with history in the Polish film streak is also more than evident: looking at works of Wajda or Holland, we can easily identify a solid stream of works that are strongly influenced by the country’s painful past. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Paweł Pawlikowski chooses to tell his Romeo and Juliet through the means of music, tying it to the events of the past and the theme of lovers doing whatever it takes to free themselves in the midst of the historic storm. In this aspect, it’s as Polish as it can get, but the director manages to cross the borders and make the story universally resonant, rather than just close it in the familiar circles that some of the outwardly political films would find themselves limited by in terms of their international interpretation.
The elliptical narrative might be a little much to grasp for some, but accepting this film as a series of beautifully shot moments is essential for getting the most out of it – the white space between the events brings the couple’s history to the fore. Black and white, with a subtle taste of Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, the film focuses on building the atmosphere of the previous century not only by the historical associations but also by the references to the filmography of New Wave filmmakers with its style as well as the exploration of characters’ needs and desires.
Zula fascinates Wiktor, and it’s clearly reciprocal. They become drawn to each other gradually, even despite the differences in backgrounds. He’s an educated musician with refined tastes and all the right connections, she’s a provincial woman and strives to maintain that persona, even if she isn’t exactly as native in the folk landscape as she presents herself to be – during the audition, she charms him not with a folk song, but with one that she picked up at a screening of a Russian film. Others warn him that she was arrested but not prosecuted for attacking her abusive father (“to stop him mistaking her for her mother” as she later clarifies), but he becomes even more entangled with her, ditching everything and giving into what he feels. That’s how their unlikely romance begins – despite their different life perceptions, upbringings and temperaments, they can’t live without each other, but don’t do any better while living with one another.
Music becomes a character in this story on its own, delivering the details that help to paint the landscape in a grand way. Not only does it provide a perfect background that associates the story with the culture it springs from, but also handcrafts the perfect atmosphere for the flick. There’s a Russian romance tango Serdse, widely known in the Eastern Bloc, stunningly sung as the original and not the existing Polish translation to magnify Zula’s disconnect from her apparent roots away from the villages they scour for talent. A multitude of classic folk songs – namely the leading tune Dwa serduszka, cztery oczy – highlight the Polish culture, followed by the songs solely written to maintain the propaganda and support what one of the officials calls “the ethnically pure Polish appearance” (blond hair with blue eyes, rather than one singer’s raven black hair, a striking observation of the new government-fabricated attitudes given the country’s pre-war diversity brought to decimal points by the effects of the Nazi politics). The entire musical ensemble, renamed to Mazurek in the film, is a clear reference to a Polish folk group Zespół Pieśni i Tańca Mazowsze that had exactly the same role in Poland, and further in the Eastern Bloc: to use folk songs in a quest to forge the identity that resonates with the working class as per the instructions from the communist government. Jazz in the Parisian cafes follows, with rock-and-roll classics such as Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets. Perfectly in tune with the storytelling, the music heightens the emotional stakes and translates the feelings that might be difficult to grasp otherwise, giving a steady reference point to the time and place while maintaining the universality of the melody that strikes you right in the heart.
Cold War creates a heart-wrenching portrayal of the emigration in the previous century, too, impacted by the closed borders that separate people beyond anything that a person born after that difficult time could ever understand. Before the communism fell in 1989 and Poland entered the transition period, escaping to the “capitalist West” could be considered a major offence – and yet, the lovers make a plan to escape while performing in East Berlin. Wiktor offers Zula a chance to live somewhere less complicated, and although it ultimately leads to their temporary separation, the old flame never dies. The gap between them, however, is only further highlighted by the new reality: the protagonist needs to stay in hiding after his leap beyond the Iron Curtain, and when they’re reunited, their different perception of life as an émigré make a staggering mark on their future. While Wiktor tries to make it in the foreign land, he’s also much less assertive and self-confident than he once was, to his lover’s frustration. He loves the creative freedom, but it’s not enough for Zula: she is an outsider, doesn’t connect to translated lyrics her partner strives to deliver to her, and berates him for conforming and not being the man she used to know. The big politics are in the way, the need for obedience and “normalcy” is apparent, the suspicions break the relationship from the outside while jealousy devastates it from the inside, and the choices they need to make get more and more complicated with every move the lovers make – the only constant is the on-off love they have for each other.
The cast includes some of the most famous names among the Polish actors working today: Tomasz Kot steps back from his comedian image punctured with performances in Gods or Destined for Blues for a conflicted musician to confirm his incredible acting range, Borys Szyc dives deep into the role of a communist government associate, while Joanna Kulig creates a fascinating, conflicted portrait of a temperamental, rebellious young woman. It’s genuinely a pity we get to see Agata Kulesza (previous Pawlikowski’s collaborator for Ida) just a few times: every time she appears, she makes the viewer crave for her own backstory.
By making Cold War a love story with the big politics in the background, rather than the other way around, Pawlikowski makes his drama much more resonant than other films that tend to spring history on the viewer less adept in reading the past of the Eastern Bloc. The final result is magnificent: filled with melancholia, heartache, and a tiny ray of hope that seems to resurface over and over again, leading us astray as we cross our fingers for the star-crossed lovers on the big screen.
Cold War opens in the UK on the 31st of August 2018.
- Cold War (2018)