Cold War (Preview)
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig.

Produced by Tanya Seghatchian and Ewa Puszczynska; directed by Pawel Pawlikowski; screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, with the collaboration of Piotr Borkowski; cinematography by Lukasz Zal; edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski; production design by Benoît Barouh, Marcel Slawinski and Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska; costume design by Ola Staszko; starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, and Agata Kulesza. B&W, 89 min., Polish dialogue with English subtitles, 2018. An Amazon Studios release.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War learns much from the music it loves. A celluloid tribute to mid-twentieth-century jazz assumes jazzlike form itself, taking a title with powerful preexisting associations only to riff on and away from such things in highly individual and innovative ways. Granted, the theme of brutally enforced estrangement looms large. But Cold War also brings any number of ostensibly opposed phenomena into close and sustained contact. Stage curtain meets Iron Curtain; European folk revival duets with American Birth of the Cool; a story of two lovers’ separation shares space with that of an entire continent’s partition; the distinctive pleasures of an intimate two-hander coexist with the grander historical sweep of an Eastern Bloc-buster. Pawlikowski’s sixth fiction feature is his most audacious and accomplished yet. 

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot.

Set across various dates and nation states (France, East Germany, Yugoslavia) between its Polish start (1949) and end (1964) points, Cold War narrates a love story that, like the times in which the latter is set, struggles to cope with the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a classically trained musician and ethnomusicologist, meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) during a nationwide search for naturally gifted Polish traditional singers and dancers. Overseen by Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), a doggedly pragmatic functionary of the nascent Stalinist regime, Zula and her peers are trained by Wiktor and others to form a state-sponsored theatrical troupe dedicated to the propagandistic performance of ersatz Polish-cum-People’s folksong and dance. Following its 1951 public debut in Warsaw, the company becomes a national and then international success, touring to various Eastern Bloc countries. By now conducting a clandestine affair, Wiktor and Zula plan to defect to the West during a performance in Berlin. He does so, but she, doubt-stricken by the prospect of an entirely new life, fails to join him. Their relationship then endures serial reunions and separations—most prominently and tempestuously of all, a period living and working together in late-Fifties Paris—on either side of the Iron Curtain. The complexities of romantic passion per se, not to mention those of one that the government of their native country refuses to legitimize, take both a heavy physical and psychological toll. By the time they meet again in mid-Sixties Poland, the couple is determined to reunite permanently—whatever the cost. 

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig.

Some central aspects of Cold War don’t need—indeed, might be actively disserved by—too much ardent intellectualization. The unapologetically melodramatic nature of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship fascinates on its own larger-than-life terms, not least because bolstered by knockout performances from, and on-screen chemistry between, lead actors Joanna Kulig (who had already made memorable appearances in Pawlikowki’s The Woman in the Fifth [2011] and Ida [2013]) and Tomasz Kot. In this sense, Cold War tries to evaluate its central characters’ mutual attraction by surrendering self-consciously to that very same allure. As a direct result, both film and filmmaker frequently echo the needs and desires of the fictional figures they create. Wiktor (“Energy, spirit, she had something original”) and a French film producer (“She’s got something”) each experience Zula as someone/something they desire to cast in a sculptural as well as a theatrical sense. 

Similarly, Pawlikowski’s palpable cinematic fascination with his female lead’s performance style and charisma drives him not simply to put her in his movie but also, among other things, toward executing a series of masterly ensemble set pieces that somehow always contrive to keep Kulig center stage, both literally and figuratively, within a melee of competing, highly mobile protagonists. Although far more languid than many of its more instantaneously arousing and kinetic siblings, Cold War’s signature shot in this regard is one in which a recently defected Zula is seen performing a radically reworked Polish folk song in a Parisian jazz club. While the 360-degree shot that structures the scene affords space to contemplate the respective experiences of her backing band and audience, Zula/Kulig is clearly privileged as the center point around which all other on-screen elements are compelled to pivot, a fact made even more powerful by the film’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. What goes for this single sequence also applies to Cold War’s entire story arc. Early on, Zula strategically concedes the necessity of letting male figures (Wiktor, Kaczmarek) shape her. Over time, however, it is she who increasingly mentors or manipulates the men in her life. 

Joanna Kulig as Zula.

Kulig’s actorly abilities aside, Zula’s visual and narrative pre-eminence perhaps also relates to the fact that she is the protagonist who seems most aware of and alive to a recurring thematic concern in Pawlikowski’s cinema, namely, the distinctive character and complexities of exilic experience. Cold War is the latest installment in a distinguished oeuvre that repeatedly foregrounds separations from home that can be literal (Last Resort [2000], The Woman in the Fifth), spiritual (Ida), or both. In Cold War, a running motif of mirror-based scenes suggest that Zula’s self-contemplative abilities exceed those of other characters comparably compromised by the polarized and paranoid nature of the times in which they all live. For Kaczmarek, people’s cultural allegiances are a matter of accident. On learning that it is not Polish, he dismisses out of hand one of the few folk songs he actually likes (“Shame it’s not ours”). He is equally matter-of-fact in accepting that centuries-old musical traditions can be instantaneously transformed and traduced for contemporary state propagandistic ends “if given direction.” Zula’s sense of cultural allegiance, by contrast, is lithe and ironically self-aware. Her prepared audition piece to join a Polish folk music troupe is a recent song from a Soviet film musical. She is far less sanguine than Wiktor in her assessment of the ease with which Polish cultural traditions can be neatly repackaged for immediate consumption in French jazz bars. 

Indeed, the narrative centrality of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship further deepens the sense that she forms the main conduit for Cold War’s examination of its exilic theme. In Berlin, Wiktor’s first impulse is to defect/act. Zula’s, by contrast, is to reflect/ask: she does not initially follow him west because she is unable to avoid or answer the question “Who will I be there?” That inherent distinction between the lovers then defines the later twists and turns in their relationship. Wiktor approaches exile by attempting to remain the same person in a different place. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, he expresses love for Zula by channelling the priapic into the proprietorial. In Paris as in Poland, he devotes himself to making her a star performer within radically different cultural spheres and musical traditions (Stalinist fake folk in the East, modish jazz and smoky chanson in the West)…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1