Romeo and Juliet are transplanted from Renaissance Verona to mid-20th Century Poland in Paweł Pawlikowski’s stunning Cold War. This elegant film charts a fractious love affair against the backdrop of fractious times.
Pawlikowski has a reputation as a stylish and thoughtful director; sometimes compared to a younger version of his compatriot Roman Polanski (without the baggage). His film Ida was a darling of the art-house circuit in 2013; and Cold War is something of a quasi-sequel to it.
Cold War opens in 1949 as the Soviet-backed Polish Communist government is beginning to assert its control. One small part of that is an initiative to establish a national performing arts academy to champion proletarian works. Pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and dancer Irena (Agata Kuleza) are tapped to be its directors. Initially Wiktor embraces the academy’s focus on peasant music and dance; dutifully towing the line set by local commissar Kaczmarek (Borys Syzc).
But fresh performer Zula (Joanna Kulig) distracts Wiktor’s attentions. The pair are soon lovers; but the academy’s strict rules mean their affair must be kept secret. But Wiktor sees an opportunity – the academy’s success leads to an invitation to perform in (divided) Berlin. Wiktor sets a time and place to meet Zula and flee into West Berlin; but a series of mishaps leads to Zula missing the rendezvous. In those pre-Wall days, Wiktor is able to simply walk to freedom. But Zula remains behind the Iron Curtain.
Pawlikowski and screenwriting partner Janusz Glowacki bring big ideas to Cold War. His core thesis seems to be that freedom and oppression are incompatible. You can’t have even a bit of one without fundamentally destroying the other. Each however have their attractions. Freedom offers choice, including the choice to mess up. Oppression removes choice by gives direction and stability. Another idea is that human desires override political considerations. No matter how fervently Wiktor and Zula crave their particular political choice, their desire for each other comes first.
Interestingly, Pawlikowski sets up the serious, dedicated Wiktor as the lover of freedom; while the flighty, impulsive Zula prefers the order of oppression. But each comes to see the dark side of their respective choices.
He also plays around with time. The first section of the film, set entirely in the school, takes place over a few months; but then the film takes leaps of years at a time. The year and place are helpfully noted on inter-titles to allow the audience to keep up.
DOP Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent) captures the action in amazing black-and-white. The film features many outstanding images, but perhaps none better than Zula floating in a pond with the sky reflecting off the water. The now-unusual Academy ratio gives the film a confined feel. It has the style of a French New Wave film, and the works of Truffaut and Godard appear to have heavily influenced many of Pawlikowski’s choices.
Music plays a huge part in the film. In keeping with its theme, traditional Polish folk music is counterpointed by jazz. A smattering of early rock ‘n’ roll and classical music complete the tapestry. And any film that ends with Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations gets a tick from me.
Tomasz Kot brings an intellectual rigour to Wiktor. You can almost see the thoughts running through his head at times. He provides a stark contrast to Borys Syzc’s Kaczmarek, a stuffy administrator and political animal. While the film focusses mainly on the lovers, Kaczmarek pops up with surprising frequency. But Cold War belongs to Joanna Kulig as the radiant Zula. Framed by Zal’s gorgeous cinematography, she looks like she could have stepped straight off the set of an Ingmar Bergman film into this one. And her performance as the fiery singer is breathtaking.
If you love art-house European cinema, you’ll eat up Cold War. Pawlikowski’s refined, intellectual filmmaking makes a lot of demands on its audience. It’s often not an easy ride; but it’s one worth taking.
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Syzc
Release Date: 26 December 2018
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television