Director Pawel Pawlowski is Poland’s first ever Oscar winner for his eerily mesmerising road movie Ida. With the newly released Cold War, Pawlowski explores more expansive themes, compressed to his usual running time of 88 minutes, but keeps a similar aesthetic; shooting in black and white, on academy ratio and a likewise setting of a post war, Soviet era Poland. Sprawled over 15 years, Pawlowski’s treats viewers to a stunning if precarious love story, where two lovers are never on the same page, their coupling is hindered throughout by life circumstances, political oppression and stubborn egos.
Composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) along with his colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza) are responsible for setting up a new state folk troupe, the Mazurek; scouring the war ravaged Polish countryside of the late 40s for young female singers. Zula, in her early twenties and on probation for murdering her father, auditions and Wiktor is instantly smitten. She is hired and subsequently becomes the star of the troupe and a passionate liaison between her and Wiktor ensues. The troupe acquires national fame and slowly they are forced to add pro-Stalin songs to their repertoire, contradicting Wiktor’s own political allegiances.
An opportunity to perform in East Berlin, sees Wiktor make plans for them to defect into West Germany, only for Zula to chicken out at the last minute, resulting him crossing over on his own. Wiktor makes his way to Paris and finds success as a jazz composer, whilst Zula becomes a national star in Poland. What follows is a series of convoluted reunifications and break ups as they meet up at various intersections across the European continent. Matters become so long-drawn-out, where circumstances have Zula resigned to marrying high official, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) and bare his child, in order to pull strings and free Wiktor from jail; who is arrested as he attempts to re-enter Poland. When they finally meet again in the film’s denouement, they take a bus to where they first met and decide to take their destinies into their own hands.
Cinematographer Lukasz Zal, paints a mesmerizing picture. Stylistically there are remnants of neo-realist Italian cinema of the 1950s, where poetry and the cruelty of life are symbiotically coalescing. The use of black and white, in a similar vein to Ida, adds to the film’s celluloid flair, directing the viewers gaze to the actor’s delivery as well as beautifying each scene and simultaneously reflect the monochrome-ness of Poland behind the iron curtain.
Wiktor's dark and handsome features compliment Zula's sultry blonde locks and almond-shaped eyes, a perfect embodiment of golden era Hollywood. He is dashing and debonair, a sensitive and creative spirit but with a masculine approach. Kulig is spellbinding as Zula, a unique mix of impulsiveness, vulnerability and ruthless pragmatism. A wonderfully sumptuous moment where she’s drunk at the bar, miserably pining over being ignored by Wiktor who is busing being schmoozed by Parisian elites. It’s simply an exquisite scene, an artisan’s wet dream. Their passion and intensity is met with continual resistance from their own conflicting aspirations and the political landscape, both exhibiting different responses to the current communist regime. And in the end, they forsake their lives and its constant intrusion, in search of eternal love.
The film’s ending lingers with you, post viewing. In another film it would have been a big tragedy but, in Cold War it doesn’t feel as such. Not just because their conclusion is self-inflicted but as we are treated to all these feverishly rich and tumultuous events of their enchantingly gorgeous love affair, it seems that by the end both their lives are replete with life experience and perhaps in a moment of whimsical idealism it was time to allow this special love of theirs a chance to flourish.
Cold War is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_