The Pitch: Poland, 1942, during the war. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is enlisted by Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), a government sycophant, to oversee a travelling revue of traditional, rural Polish folk tunes. While seeking out future stars for the show, he happens upon Zula (Joanna Kulig), an exceptionally talented singer with a dark past. Zula quickly becomes the centerpiece of Wiktor’s show, but as the years pass on and the cultural/sociopolitical tensions continue to mount, their budding romance is thwarted by everything from circumstance to political repression to the simple, unavoidable passage of time.
Love, Mid-Century European Style: Much of the early word around Cold War has situated it as a loosely biographical feature about director Pawel Pawlikowski‘s parents. Yet the kind of intimacy that the film sets out is far less sweepingly romantic than it’s concerned with the ways in which romance can be impeded by everything from war to missed connections to the ill intentions of others. The cruelties which send Wiktor and Zula out of one another’s arms time and again are very much attuned to the era in which the film takes place (across European borders from 1942 to 1957), but their story takes on a grander context as the film unfolds, one every bit as indebted to the classic romantic tragedies of old Hollywood as it is to Pawlikowki’s own family history.
Dread exists constantly in the periphery of Cold War. When Wiktor suggests that the two escape Berlin together, it’s far less a question of whether they’ll succeed than which of the forces conspiring against them will interfere first. Pawlikowski employs the same classic 4:3 ratio he brought to his breakthrough 2014 feature Ida, and where in that film he used the relative claustrophobia of that space to speak to his wayward protagonist’s isolation, here he adds breathtaking depth to a frame that seems to always be spilling beyond its own boundaries. There’s a sumptuous quality to Lukasz Zal’s black-and-white photography that grows harrowing as the film unfolds. Whenever the film takes a moment to allow itself to slip into the same starry-eyed reveries as the deeply flawed duo as its center, the perpetual violence of the surrounding world is never far behind.
Sad Songs: For a film so steadily concentrated on music, Cold War finds some of its most poignant stuff within silence. After all, most of the film’s singing is aggressively performative; when Wiktor discovers Zula, she’s singing for him in the form of an audition. Later performances of hers will capture everything from the emotional and physical distance of political exile to the ability of a true talent to carry on even with the pressures of the entire known world weighing down on her. Pawlikowski spends a great deal of time relying on his actors to carry some of the film’s most powerful scenes through subtleties and silences, and Kulig in particular is revelatory. Zula begins the film as an enigma and ends it as scarcely less of one, and Kulig’s inscrutable features betray everything from longing to aching need to multitudes of secret intention.
Kot is likely affecting, as a hardly innocent caddish type who nevertheless believes, beyond all belief, that Zula is “the woman of my life.” Other loves come and go with time for them both, but even as Wiktor finds himself surrounded by more and more unfamiliar times, Zula remains his constant. If Pawlikowski does occasionally insist on the indestructibility of their love in ways that the film never entirely cements, those emotions are found within his leading performances in spades. Kulig and Kot exude the kind of yearning that becomes impossible to deny as the film presses on, their lovers less star-crossed than doomed by them.
The Verdict: There’s not an ounce of wasted motion to be found throughout Cold War. Pawlikowski moves at a fleet pace, trusting in his audience to fill in the gaps that the film’s understated storytelling leaves along the way. As the years press on, the political facets creep in (as they so often do) until they become omnipresent in Wiktor and Zula’s lives. Both time and politics have a way of bending people to their will, after all.
The small moments linger the most throughout Cold War, and it’s in those delicate notes that Pawlikowski’s film gains its true resonance. Zula, in a fit of boredom and envy, brings an entire bar to her will in the space of one increasingly frenzied dance to “Rock Around the Clock”. A pair of eyes gaze out from behind a dilapidated church wall, from a world that will never exist again. Tomasz waits at a street corner, smoking a cigarette for as long as he possibly can, hoping that the woman of his life will arrive. And as success and collapse and more darkness still awaits, they hold each other under the Parisian lights, desperate never to let go, knowing all the while that something will force them to before long.
Where’s It Playing?: Cold War is out now in NY/LA, and will expand to limited cities in the weeks to come.