In Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) Alain Resnais set Marguerite Duras the task of writing a love story that would not seem insignificant alongside the brute fact of the atomic bomb. In Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski gives us a love story that traverses the oppressive political landscape of the years following World War Two, when capitalism and communism faced off over a growing arsenal of nuclear warheads.
Shot in black-and-white, with an old-fashioned 4X3 aspect ratio that squares up the screen, Cold War is a movie in which form and content are inextricably linked. Pawlikowski understands how black-and-white conjures feelings of nostalgia and faded glamour. The squarish format creates a kind of forced intimacy with the characters.
Pawlikowski won an Academy Award for his previous film, Ida (2013), also shot in black-and-white and set in post-war Poland. The idea may be to convey the colourless nature of life behind the iron curtain while allowing a more piercing focus on the lead characters. The results are bleak but extraordinarily seductive, making it easy to see why he won the award for Best Director at Cannes this year. Every frame in this brief, intense film is composed like a painting, although some of the credit for this must go to cinematographer, Lukasz Zal.
Pawlikowski has admitted that the two lead characters were based on his own parents, whose relationship was a grand passion and a disaster. It’s the story of a turbulent romance rendered almost impossible by the ideological barriers of 20th century politics.
It’s 1949, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is touring the Polish countryside with a colleague, Irena (Agata Kulesza), and a party apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), recording folk songs and looking for peasants with musical talent. The hopefuls will be brought to an audition with a view to forming a folk music company called Mazurek. One of the group is a spirited young woman named Zula (Joanna Kulig), who immediately captures Wiktor’s attention. He pushes hard for her inclusion, and she goes on to be a star performer.
Mazurek is a typical creation of the Stalinist era: a trumped-up celebration of peasant life and Polish national identity that poses no threat to the existing political order. When the authorities suggest that concerts should include more songs in praise of agriculture, industry and Stalin, disagreement is not an option.
As the group becomes successful and tours the Eastern bloc, Wiktor and Zula embark on a love affair that offers a passionate respite from the charade of their lives. The relationship even survives Zula’s confession that she has been informing on her lover – it’s simply what one does to survive. Although Wiktor keeps a straight face on all occasions, he’s made plans to defect upon arrival in East Berlin, and he wants Zula to come with him.
For various reasons she doesn’t make it and the lovers are stranded on opposite sides of the iron curtain. The film skips forward several years, to the mid-1950s, where Wiktor is playing piano in a jazz bar in Paris. Suddenly Zula steps back into his life and the spark is reignited. It’s the beginning of an exasperating sequence of reunions and separations that take on an increasingly dramatic aspect as Wiktor travels to see Mazurek perform in Yugoslavia, and Zula makes her way back to Paris through marriage to an Italian.
For Zula life in Paris seems just as phoney and shallow as life under Stalin – worse, perhaps, because under communism everyone knows the role they’re expected to adopt, while among the French intelligentsia those roles shift with the winds of fashion. Temperamentally unsuited for this game, she’s disgusted by Wiktor’s willingness to play along. Her growing sense of alienation will precipitate the movie’s tragic final act.
Music is used to illustrate the different mentalities that apply in the east and the west, from the ersatz, falsely cheerful ‘folk music’ of Mazurek, to the pretentious lyrics and cheap melancholy of French pop. When Zula dances drunkenly in a bar to Rock around the clock, she signals her rejection of all this artificial sentiment.
For the viewer the story unfolds like a hallucination as we watch the twists and turns of a relationship filled with longing and antagonism, played out across a continent. Tomasz Kot, tall, dark and willowy, and Joanna Kulig, blonde, buxom and sensuous, are perfectly cast as opposites that attract. For both actors the film should be a launching pad for wider international recognition.
Concentrating on only two people, Cold War exposes the barrenness of life in post-war Eastern Europe and the shallowness of those freedoms the west held so dear. It’s an anthology of disillusions in which love is the only transcendent force. Communism has taught Wiktor and Zula how to be stoics, but it doesn’t take away the pain they feel inside. She grows more combustible over time, but his attachment only seems to deepen.
Pawilowski sets personal intimacy against the great movements of history, showing how those pseudo-scientific ideologies that spoke on behalf of an abstraction called ‘humanity’ were destructive of everything that was truly, irrationally human.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Written by Pawel Pawlikowski & Janusz Glowacki
Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig, Borys Szc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar
Poland/UK/France, rated M, 88 mins