Opening in an austere building somewhere in post-war Poland during auditions for a kind of anthropological folk music project, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is hard to gauge at first. There’s a sense of menace but also a sliver of absurd humour as the two auditioners sit stone-faced watching a series of performers who are clearly uncomfortable singing without expression. The cinematography is black and white, but the tone is decidedly grey. Then, a wildcard character flies into the audition room, full of attitude and pizazz. Her name is Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the male auditioner Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is immediately hooked by her stirring rendition of what could be a rather dreary song. The melody lingers—resurfacing throughout the film as a ghostly refrain—and the audition sets off a romantic-tragic chain reaction which will stay with you for a long time.
“It feels like you’ve time travelled back to the middle of last century using someone’s heart to take you there.”
In a way, Cold War is narratively the opposite to last year’s sweeping romantic masterpiece Call Me by Your Name. Where the latter was about living in the moment and celebrating the summer romance in all its peach-infused, light dappled glory, Cold War is about holding on to love and living in the past. However, the film invokes a similar emotional reaction: the aching and energy that comes from first love.
The first audition is the gateway to a decade of love and mania for the youthful Zula and grizzled Wiktor. More broadly, the transition from rural villages to rain-soaked cities signals a dark socio-political shift in the first years of the Cold War, which blockaded the tightly-controlled East from the revitalising West. Soon after Zula’s first folk choir performance, Wiktor comes to the realisation he is being manoeuvred into becoming an agent of propaganda for the Soviet government. He quickly devises a plan for the two of them to escape across enemy lines once they tour East Berlin. However, things go awry, and the pair split. In the years following, Zula becomes a poster girl for state-controlled folk culture, while Wiktor lives out his Parisian jazz club dream, and neither ever seem entirely satisfied. As the political climate continues to chill, their paths cross over and intertwine, and they fall in and out of love.
Not since Elio and Oliver (Call Me By Your Name) called each other by their respective names has a love story leapt so wholeheartedly off the screen. Every beat of the soundtrack reverberates, every frame is silky, and every exchange between the lovers is electric. Pawlikowksi’s camera work responds to place with an animalistic intuitiveness—whether it’s bouncing through a field in love or tumbling through a jazz club—to the point you almost forget this isn’t a documentary about dysfunctional relationships in 50s Europe. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal (noted for his work on Pawlikowski’s previous film Ida) lights every shot with the drama and expression of lived experience, or at least the experiences of real people (the film is, apparently, based on the director’s parents’ relationship). The rooms you peer into throughout Cold War feel alive with history and with character.
As the credits roll, it feels like you’ve time travelled back to the middle of last century using someone’s heart to take you there. After all the emotional chaos of this relationship, it becomes obvious that all the songs and sublime images were leading to an inevitable conclusion. Cold War, which seemed so unreadable at first, is suddenly arrestingly clear.
Cold War by Paweł Pawlikowski (2018), 88 minutes, Poland