A whirlwind performance leads Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film into poignancy.
“That is really beautiful. What language is it?”
“I thought so. Shame.”
“That it isn’t ours.”
So kicks off Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to 2013’s Ida, which took home an Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Well, it doesn’t begin there, actually. When the film opens, we’re greeted with a man’s dirty fingernails and the sound of his kozial, an Eastern European take on bagpipes (or perhaps their progenitor). He’s looking directly at the camera – or trying to, though he seems quite shy. Then there is more music: chanting, folk singing, all manner of home-crafted instruments. This tour of the sounds of rural Polish life is Wiktor & Irena’s (Tomasz Kot & Agata Kulesza), who are scouring the countryside for talent out of which they can form a company. When Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), their company manager, asks Wiktor his question, the three of them are sitting in their touring van with a choir of voices coming through the phonograph. It is beautiful, but it isn’t theirs, and soon they’re holding village-wide auditions.
The year is 1949: the titular war is kicking off, but hasn’t reached its peak yet, and Soviet presence in the village is absent. Kaczmarek makes a speech to a gathering of the villagers about showing the world the heart of Poland through their art before letting them all enter the venue to audition, and we see them gathered in front of the building: listening, but with muted expectations. A cow nearby wanders into frame.
It’s here we meet Zula (Joanna Kulig), who brazenly and effectively becomes the centerpiece of the newly formed company – and of Wiktor’s life. The two are in love, we understand, and the film begins its chronicling of Wiktor and Zula in close-up when the performers, winning renown for their packaging of traditional folk music, are invited to (East) Berlin to sing and dance on the national stage. To get there, there is a meeting with the Soviet leadership in Poland, and Kaczmarek overrules Irena’s protests by agreeing to use the piece to speak as a “leader of the world’s proletariat.'” Propagandize the singing farmers, in other words. Through the discussion, Wiktor is silent, because he’s about to come to Zula with a plan: you and I will meet at night and walk into West Berlin together; then it’s off to Paris. When the night comes, Wiktor waits, smoking many cigarettes, but Zula never shows. He walks by himself into the bustle of the Western hemisphere.
That is only the set-up of the film, essentially, and the first few years: Cold War follows 15 years in only 88 minutes and, despite plenty of plot, never once feels rushed. Part of this is how deftly the characterization of our lovers is woven into single, pitch-perfect moments – see a short sequence of Zula leaping into a river in frustration and singing loudly as she floats downstream. Everything here is communicated in only the most essential of ways; it’s a strength Ida had, as well. Also like Ida, the film is shot in black & white, in a 4:3 aspect ratio; the narrow frame allows Zula and Wiktor to be easily isolated when apart or at odds, and makes the moments of intimacy much more so, as if each rendezvous were in a space that could barely hold the two of them. It also serves to show effectively the distance between moments of calm and more boisterous impulses – when Zula runs through a dance hall and leaps onto the bar, the camera can hardly hold her. And Pawelikowski’s instinct to frame from the shoulders up, and present the air above actor’s heads, gives each character a world that seems to be emanating out of them: thoughts and feelings that are dispersing upward, even in silence, and which brings us even more into their gaze. The fact that the film can allow for plenty of moments like this while still covering so much narrative ground is a wonder.
Because it takes no shortcuts, either: this is a love story, and over those 15 years we’re treated to every development in Zula & Wiktor’s relationship, a perpetual give-and-take that manages to deepen their understanding of each other & of their own lives. Zula’s decision to stay in the USSR is given a simple explanation: “it wouldn’t have worked.” It’s not the answer we’re looking for, but by the way she says it – and says nearly everything else in the film – we know she’s right, and that she knows something we & Wiktor do not. Moment to moment, Cold War can be joyous and hilarious and make you want to dance – the soundtrack is wonderfully eclectic, with a combination of tone-setting pop songs you’ve heard hundreds of times and nearly untraceable Polish folk that seems to have emerged from the hills themselves. But Zula, and the film as a whole, share an understanding that makes it out to be a much thornier – and darker – picture than Ida.
The feelings of joy never last too long, for one thing, either because our protagonist’s lives take another left turn or because we’re reminded of the fear that dominates the era. That initial vision of villagers in a field soon becomes one of a harmless-enough pastoral fantasy in the company’s first year, and then gives way to the same group shot a third time: a performance unchanged, except for the massive image of Stalin being being hoisted above it. This is the company in which Zula remains when Wiktor flees West. Why? A telling moment, perhaps: while learning a new song, Zula refuses to sing the line “the pendulum breaks time.” Confronting the lyricist at a party, she’s told that it’s a metaphor, for love’s ability to rid us of time’s oppression. “Metaphor,” she hisses later. “Idiot.” Zula knows that you can’t break time, or even fight it convincingly; even she, singing, is stuck in the images history has layered over her.
Her decision to remain in Poland is given more layers during a fight with Wiktor – she calls him a “Pole living in exile,” and it emerges through her (and through following Wiktor’s relatively fruitless life in the West) that escaping the past isn’t something they can do. The very soil of their home country she seems to feel in their veins, and the last few years have ruined the land. She appears to take as a given this fate-by-association, and yet lives entirely by her own rules within it, with a kind of vicious maturity that lives behind every joke, every truth and insult she throws at us or at Wikor or at the world around her. Joanna Kulig gives the one of the great performances to grace our screens in the US this year, and it helps that the script is so devoid of anything that doesn’t need to be there.
Zula is the heart of the whole movie, and if there’s a weakness to Cold War, it’s that one too many splits follow Wiktor more thoroughly than she. She is truly fully-formed, completely capable, with eyes wide open; there’s almost something Shakespearean about her. And who is he – a drawn shade by comparison, searching in the dark. His attempts to make a life of music and art and love by running from the forces of power and time that chase him comes to us as it does Zula – it was never going to work. Tomasz Kot gives a striking performance as a man indifferent to everything except the next moment with his love – but ignorance of the outside world doesn’t mean it can’t get to you. Though he struts his autonomy, it’s she who, in the end, drags them back to Poland, to face the life that she’s been looking straight into for a decade and a half. If Ida was a film about a woman understanding the past and writing her own narrative from within it, Cold War disavows that such self-actualization is always an option.
Cold War‘s ending will seem unnecessarily brutal to some and inevitable, maybe even compassionate, to others. But the grace of the film lies in its assertion that love – any kind of love – is perhaps most important in the context of history’s indifferent unwinding. Yes, there are romances in which love transcends its era and location and takes its lovers toward a better life. Some of these stories are beautiful. It’s a shame they usually aren’t ours.