The tension between communist Poland and the West in the 1950s is reflected in the tortured love affair of a singer and the musician who discovers her.
Relationships are hard. Most people know that. Being in love doesn’t guarantee the skills needed to communicate, live together, or work through big issues. Now, if you add to that difficulty an oppressive or intrusive society into which you’re born and must live, the problems become even more complicated. During the last century, we’ve seen war and other political conditions and conflicts increasingly invade people’s private lives. This cruel but fascinating truth is explored in an extraordinary love story from Polish writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski. The film is titled Cold War.
Cold War opens in 1949, with two musical experts, Irena and Wiktor, played by Agata Kulesza and Tomasz Kot, traveling through the Polish countryside recording various peasant folk singers and musicians. The ultimate goal is the creation of a state-sponsored folk ensemble that will represent Polish music to the communist countries of eastern Europe, and perhaps to the rest of the world as well. To that end, they recruit a large group of young new talent to perform in this project, which is supervised by a party functionary named Kaczmarek, played by Borys Szyc.
Irena is all business, obviously already cynical about the party and its demands. Wiktor, a ruggedly handsome pianist and conductor, is pleased and excited by this gathering of talent, and during the auditions he is especially struck by an attractive young woman singer named Zula, played by Joanna Kulig. Zula has something special that Wiktor notices right away—she sings the traditional melodies with authentic phrasing, but with an added, modern verve and energy. As the story proceeds into the early 1950s, the troupe gains increasing fame, Zula is clearly the star of the show, and she and Wiktor have fallen passionately in love. When the party decides to step in and have the ensemble add songs to the program praising Stalin and the proletariat, it indicates an overall social and emotional constriction that always stymies the true creative spirit. When the group visits Berlin, Wiktor decides to defect to the West, and wants Zula to join him. But will she?
Like Pawlikowski’s previous film from 2013, the award-winning Ida, Cold War is shot in high contrast black-and-white, which is both aesthetically beautiful and evocative of the time period, that extends through the ‘50s and into the early 1960s. The film’s musical sense is brilliant—in some cases, songs that we hear in their original folk versions early on are reinterpreted as jazz later on, helping to highlight the contrast between life in Poland, where jazz was actually outlawed until 1956, and in the West, where freedom helped foster a style of cool that both increased and concealed emotional engagement.
The central love story has a powerful and direct correlation with the music. Even though Poland is maddening and repressive, it’s still home, whereas Paris, for instance, with all its glamour, is still foreign and apart from the experience of the émigré. Wiktor and Zula are riven by quarrels and jealousy and nameless fears, which, even more than the temperamental conflicts which one might expect, are stoked by their social and political plight.
Tomasz Kot’s performance as Wiktor is gripping—he becomes more and more trapped in the pain of loving Zula beyond all hope and reason. An interesting sidelight is the character of the party man, Kaczmarek. The film doesn’t make him into a villain. His responses, as conventional as they may be, are fully human and understandable. But the presence that dominates Cold War, is Joanna Kulig, as Zula. This is one of those performances that tears through you with ferocity and passion. Zula is an unforgettable figure of fierce determination and willfulness—unable to resolve her life’s contradictions, she lives on the emotional extremes, larger than life, gambling everything on one throw.
With its delicate craft, Cold War shows how music creates its own world that transcends the limitations of society, and the human heart.