Well, there were great expectations for Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up after the beautiful and pluri-award-winning Ida (2013). To say he has satisfied them is an understatement. Cold War is a masterclass in filmmaking and is a reminder of what made many of us fall in love with cinema in the first place.
The story is about two musicians: Wiktor, who is a composer, pianist and debonair man about town (Tomasz Zot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is a beautiful young singer with a complicated past. But not as complicated as their country’s recent past or present, for the action begins in Poland in 1949. Wiktor and his team, comprised of Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), are touring the countryside looking for traditional folk songs to record. After glimpses of rural life that look more like something from Bruegel than the twentieth century, the team head to a country mansion that they turn into a training camp for singers and dancers.
One of the singers auditioning is Zula and Wiktor is immediately captivated by this knowing, sultry girl. Rather than choose a regional folk song, Zula sings a song learned from a Russian film and it’s all about heartache, a song and a theme that recurs throughout the film.
Shot in black-and-white, Cold War is reminiscent of so many European films from the post-war period, particularly French and Italian movies from the 1940s through to the 1960s. However, Casablanca also comes to mind, thanks to the heart-wrenching love story, as does The Third Man. We have Lukasz Zal to thank for this incredible cinematography. He also worked on Ida, but is as at home in the rich world of colour, as we saw in Loving Vincent.
It is fitting that the film is a pan-European production, with Poland, France and the UK all involved, for Cold War zigzags across Europe, taking us on a tour that includes Berlin, Paris and Zagreb as this mismatched couple get entangled with the Iron Curtain. This story was apparently based on Pawlikowski’s parents’ story, and he dedicates it to them. He depicts the rise of the cult of Stalin as the folk singers are required to add hymns to agricultural reform and loyalty to the party to their repertoire.
The inherent racism of that regime is subtly communicated by Kaczmarek. When he hears a beautiful folk song he is disappointed that it is not in Polish (“not one of ours”) and he is concerned about one of the performers not looking Polish enough. When the camera turns to her, we see a dark-haired Jewish girl pinpointed by the camera. There is no disguising the fact that while the Poles fought their Nazi neighbours, they share some similar prejudices. The insidious hold that the Soviet Union had over its denizens is particularly well conveyed when Wiktor heads for Croatia.
When Wiktor defects and moves to Paris, the audience waits for Zula to follow whilst knowing that it is all going to go horribly wrong. What the audience might not anticipate is just how wrong and with what consequences. To be honest, what this story really has much in common with is Doctor Zhivago, and these two leads are as beautiful as Christie and Sharif. Joanna Kulig, who we saw so briefly in Ida as the singer, is a whirling nightingale and a fabulous femme fatale, while Tomasz Zot embodies Wiktor with pathos and yearning as he goes from smooth to impotent to resolved. Pawlikowski has created a stark, stunning love story that has all the ingredients to become a classic.