Political and personal purgatory are infused in Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest feature Cold War. While inspired by and dedicated to his parents, Pawlikowski manages to tease out the wider themes of both period and place with masterfully executed cinematic style and in characteristic short-hand (Cold War comes in at under 90 minutes). Visually nostalgic and musically entrancing, Cold War’s enticing atmosphere nonetheless emanates out from an emotionally-frigid core.
Poland, 1949. As Soviet reconstruction begins, aspiring artist Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) attempts to relocate the folk songs of the countryside to evoke authentic national renewal as the country crawls out of the ruins of the Second World War . While auditioning young women for their new music troupe, Wiktor soon falls for the sultrily beautiful yet privately traumatised Zula (Joanna Kulig). In each other, the two believe they find what they are looking for: an escape from poverty and repression in a world where new borders are being drawn and traditional institutions have been destroyed. The love affair takes Wiktor and Zula back and forth across the ‘Iron Curtain’- from the tightly-surveillanced concert halls of the East to the intoxicatingly hedonistic jazz scene of the West. Yet, as the years pass and loyalties change, the question lingers whether Wiktor and Zula are better living with or without each other.
Around the socially and emotionally exploitative relationship at its centre, Pawlikowski builds an mesmerising visual and musical landscape which shifts according to the political, cultural and physical geography that Cold War traverses. With cinematographer Łukasz Żal (whom Pawlikowski collaborated before on his 2015 Ida), the director’s skilful composition within the reduced frame ratio creates a bewitching canvas that doesn’t so much replicate mid-20th Century romantic dramas (most evocative in my mind was Curtiz’s Casablanca) as have enough fidelity to have been made in the period itself. It is not just merely the nostalgic monochrome, chiaroscuro lighting or realistic period backdrops (from brutal Polish hinterlands to neon-lit, smoky Parisian bars), but also an atmosphere born out of a potently transformative era in Europe which seeps into each scene: a massive banner emblazoned with Stalin creeping up behind the troupe; the war torn church without a roof (its previously ornate ceiling now exposed to the wintry sky); the camerawork shifting from static mid-shot to hand-held intimacy as an American rock-and-roll tune invigorates Zula from a drunken stupor into a dance of frantic abandon. Personal and political upheaval, disintegration and redefinition are clear contextual themes in Cold War that Pawlikowski draws from the story into the cinematic form.
Cold War’s music also becomes a distinct character in itself rather than a mere backdrop element. From the opening shot on a provincial Polish instrument playing a cautionary folk-song, Pawlikowski foregrounds the significance of the film’s diegetic music as it traverses the ‘Iron Curtain’ with Wiktor and Zula. Lifted from its rural peasant origins, our attention is drawn to the lyrics and melody of a particular folk song as its morphs, not only in language, but in purpose: from Soviet propaganda attempting to unite the benighted masses in an explicit collective celebration to sexualised and commercial Parisian jazz. This acts as an aural metaphor for its singer Zula- pushed and pulled according to her situation, subject to greater interfering and warring forces, transformed into an object for either collectivisation or commercialisation. Pawlikowski and pianist Marcin Masecki’s bebop arrangements of real Polish folk ensemble Mazowsze’s music (‘Two Hearts’) soon fill and haunts Cold War with unsatisfied longing and desperation.
Despite being laboured at times with cliche melodramatic dialogue and prolonged avid staring, both Kot and Kulig make the dysfunctional relationship compelling enough. Underneath their matinee idol looks, evoking post-war film stars like Peck and Bogart or Bergman and Monroe, the two convince in performing a turbulent chemistry that lurches between passion, friction, devotion and indifference. However, this is less emotionally or psychologically involving than being symbolic for the struggle of those caught between East and West during the ideological conflict. Pawlikowski’s episodic structure and pointed elliptical pauses also becomes a problem in showing the later developments of their relationship. As time and political status begins to wear these characters down, I became less concerned with them as actual living people than as props to embody the toll that occupation and exile can have.
The weighty conclusion to Wiktor and Zula’s journey, however thematically appropriate, did feel hollow. However emotionally distant, Pawlikowski still manages to transport you into the dislocating Cold War era with unexpected cinematic elegance and detail.