After the critical acclaim and awards showered on Ida (2013), the next offering from Polish-born director, Pawel Pawlikowski was always going to arrive laden with expectations. He didn’t disappoint. When his latest, Cold War, arrived at Cannes this summer, he took the Best Director trophy and the film looks set to follow its predecessor as one of the leading contenders in the foreign film category at the big award ceremonies.
Anybody who saw Ida will remember its devastating impact and extraordinary use of chillingly sharp black and white photography. There are echoes of both in Cold War – they share the same DOP, Lucasz Zal – but this is no partner piece. Instead, it’s an epic love story, which starts in 1949 and lasts for the best part of 20 years, a time of extreme change in European history, yet the biggest obstacles faced by the couple at the centre of the story are themselves and their own decisions. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is making his way around post-war Poland, recording folk songs and presiding over a training school, in X-Factor fashion, for performers to travel around the country providing wholesome patriotic entertainment. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is one of the singers and goes on the road with the troupe, visiting other Soviet Bloc countries as well as performing for domestic audiences.
Their love affair, despite its longevity and their obvious passion for each other, is ill-fated. It’s one that sees them plan to escape over the border to what was then West Germany, but it never happens: one that sees her marry somebody else and him live with a poet: one that involves him moving to Paris to work with jazz musicians and her joining him there to become a successful singer. But it’s all comparatively short lived and they’re forever being pulled away from each other. Well after the move over the border that never happened, Zula assures Wiktor that she “would never have crossed without you”, but it was her who never showed up on the day and he went without her. There’s no doubting the intensity, but their commitment to each other is in question throughout.
The fractured background of Europe perfectly mirrors their relationship, providing a setting of nervous uncertainty. It gives Pawlikowski the opportunity to explore the effect of politics on ordinary people – watch how the touring folk group is exploited for pro-Stalin propaganda purposes. And he uses the music, which is almost as central to the storyline as the lovers, to skilfully to depict the passage of time, filling in the gaps between the long periods of time that pass between Wiktor and Zula’s meetings. Changing from folk to jazz and then the Eurotrash that becomes Zula’s stock in trade, it makes for a telling soundtrack.
For the director, this is also a personal film, as he reveals in the end credits. He thanks his parents. It’s not simply a loving gesture from a dutiful son, but also acknowledges that it’s based on their own story, one that traversed a number of countries and circumvented geographical and political boundaries, but could never get round the obstacles they themselves put in the way of their own happiness. The black and white photography that stunned in Ida once again depicts a cold and unforgiving Poland but this time, as the film evolves, it’s equally masterful in creating the atmosphere of smoky clubs with their harsh neon lights.
Kot and Kulig are both superb in the two central roles: their chemistry is tangible, they’re tragic and brave at the same time, yet self-centred enough for you to realise they will never find happiness together. They believe otherwise: to use Zula’s own words, the view will be better at the other side but, in truth, it’s never better for them, regardless of where they are. And, as we’re reminded throughout, the same could be said for Europe during the Cold War years.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Romance, Drama | 15 | Poland, Germany | UK, 31 August (2018) |Subtitles | Curzon Artificial Eye | Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski | Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cedric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar.