Cold War is a deeply personal film for director Paweł Pawlikowski. The story of a Polish man and woman who couple and uncouple numerous times across many European countries from 1949-64 is inspired by the tumultuous relationship of Pawlikowski’s own mother and father. As with his previous film, Ida, the filmmaker isn’t just concerned with personal identity here, but with how national identity informs the personal. Ida, which won the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, entangled a nation’s complicity in World War II horrors with a young Catholic nun’s discovery of her Jewish identity. With his latest, Pawlikowski’s historical canvas has become even wider, encompassing an era that saw the reconstruction of European nations, a cultural shift into modernism, and the erection of the Berlin Wall.
What is also retained from Ida here is narrative brevity. At a compact 89 minutes, Cold War is Pawlikowski’s miniature of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), a sweeping epic that traces the political forces that tear a nation and a romance asunder. Unlike that classic behemoth, however, Cold War foregrounds the personal, eliding monumental events — such as the building of the Iron Curtain’s physical embodiment, a barrier that separated East from West Berlin and communism from democracy. Instead, such monolithic political manifestations exist only in the spaces between Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), as backdrops to the reunions throughout their 15-year affair, and underly the push-and-pull that eventually leads to their mutual destruction.
That volatile romance begins in 1949 as composer and conductor Wiktor and his cohorts, Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), are mounting a government-backed touring showcase of traditional Polish folk song and dance as an act of national posterity. It’s a pre-television version of American Idol but composed entirely of the countryside proletariat and sans competition — as Poland has recently become a communist nation.
An apparent star does emerge, however, in the form of Zula, as she insinuates her way into dueting with and eventually outshining another potential player in an audition. Her self-identification as an innocent youth born and raised in rural Poland is quickly uncovered as a front when Irena informs Wiktor of the young woman’s true origins and of her arrest for the attempted murder of her father. “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” Zula tells Wiktor in their first one-on-one rehearsal, a session in which their mutual attraction becomes apparent as the two trade bars from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess song “I Loves You, Porgy.”
In using that classic 1935 standard – probably best known from the popular 1958 version by the singular Nina Simone – which is in stark contrast to the folk music filling the first third of the film, Pawlikowski tips his hand that the music in Cold War functions as a narrative and thematic device. Robert Altman pulled a similar trick in his masterpiece Nashville (1975), a revisionist country-and-western musical that builds its songs-as-commentary into the film’s diegesis without being presentational. Here, the traditional songs find updated iterations as modernity creeps its way into the narrative – cultural history being remade and repurposed. “Two Hearts” is first presented within the touring company’s production as an ode to Polish pride before the song’s subtext is later complicated by Wiktor producing and arranging a jazzy nightclub version for Zula. The modern object that was appropriated from the past to symbolize the couple’s undying passion still contains the seed of the nationalism that keeps them apart.
However, as the tempo of Cold War increases, there’s something wonky in the mix. The same elliptical storytelling that Pawlikowski employs to background historical context in favor of the personal is also applied to Zula and Wiktor’s narrative, possibly to the detriment of a fulsome realization of their great love affair. Throughout, title cards announce the advancing years and shifting locations. The first major narrative pivot is a section set in 1952 East Berlin, in which the touring company is now a Stalinist propaganda machine — contrary to the wishes of the quietly anti-Communist Irena, but to the gain of the insidiously brown-nosing Kaczmarek. Zula finds herself squarely in the middle when she chooses to remain in East Berlin even as Wiktor defects to the West, abandoned by the “woman of his life” because of her fear of the unknown. In Paris in 1954, Wiktor is now a lowly piano player in a nightclub when Zula, an increasingly integral part of the touring company as its rising star, visits him on her last night in the city. These dynamics shift continually with each passage as the film eventually lands on a resolution that feels completely unearned from what comes before it – a shrug of an ending that seems born from the worst art-house-film impulses.
Strictly speaking, the spaces between the couple’s clandestine reunions aren’t the problem, but because of those elisions, the reunions are hardly credible as passionate and magnetic eventualities. One could also blame Pawlikowski’s almost Bressonian approach, using pared-down performances in ostentatious tableaus. This strategy lacks the cinematic sensuality necessary to understand the couple’s supposedly palpable connection. One exception is Zula’s drunken nightclub dance to Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” a spark of defiant electricity and one of the few instances of Pawlikowski allowing his camera some freedom of movement. Overall, Cold War is relatively cool to the touch, but its underlying complications of engrained national identity opposing personal passions would be more effective if the film itself were white-hot.
If the mostly clinical approach is precisely the point, then Pawlikowski must be creating a portrait of unwavering and reckless codependency. Kulig’s performance, in particular, supports the idea: The actor refrains from betraying Zula’s motivations – apt for a character who cons her way into prominence – even as she swings wildly from self-survival, to jealousy and fear, and eventually to an alcoholism seemingly produced by the great weight of guilt from her all but sending Wiktor to a prison camp by emasculating him. Kulig (who resembles, oddly enough, both Jennifer Lawrence and Kate McKinnon) imbues Zula with as much magnetism as her director allows, and she becomes particularly alive when contrasted against her handsome but blank sparring partner, Kotz, who mostly just takes her punches.
Through his choices, however, Pawlikowski appears to think that he is indeed manufacturing the next great doomed romance for the ages. He teams again with the Oscar-nominated Ida lenser Lukasz Zal, and the two choose to work with the black-and-white photography and square-ish 1.33:1 Academy ratio of their previous collaboration. The early roll in the grass in which Zula reveals she’s been selectively informing on Wiktor to Kaczmarek is the glance of impressionistic romanticism, a possible nod to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), and a later scene of their lovemaking contains similar strains of these intentions. It’s gorgeous but empty visual storytelling out of the best of perfume ads, but Cold War is at least consistently striking even when it sometimes amounts to nothing.
Elsewhere, there are indelible images and passages, some of them the likely reasons for Cold War’s ardent admirers, of which there are many. (Zal scored another cinematography Academy Award nomination for Cold War this year, and Pawlikowski scored spots among both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director nominees.) The film is particularly memorable when the frame allows for considerable headspace to envelop the characters within their oppressive surroundings – something of a directorial trademark for Pawlikowski at this point. During a black-tie affair, Wiktor and Irena occupy the lower third of the frame, standing against an impossibly high mirrored wall that reflects the throng of drunk party-goers in front of the two musicians. They’re confronted by the celebration of communism they’ve helped to reinforce in one of the film’s too-few perfectly rendered visual metaphors of its characters’ hypocrisies and identity crises. Cold War itself may suffer from those same ailments but is nevertheless consistently compelling, even with its blurred vision.