Cold War (Zimna wojna)

Poland (2018) Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

Shakespeare famously wrote “If music be the food of love, play on” (from Twelfth Night, just in case you ever wondered) but there are times where the lyrics and melody just don’t gel as they should, or maybe the band should stop playing altogether.

In 1947, musician and composer Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and musical director Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza) are scouting rural Poland for singers of authentic traditional folk songs for their Mazurek Ensemble music show. One girl stands out for Wiktor – Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), whose voice and unusual choice of audition song piques his interest, and once the show hits the road, they begin an affair.

But with Poland being under Soviet rule, the government insists some of the folk songs are replaced with propaganda tunes praising Marx, Lenin, and Mother Russia, which is accepted under duress. Wanting to break free from this tyranny and head to the west to fulfil their musical ambitions, Wiktor and Zula use the tour across Europe as a cover for their escape to political and artistic freedom.

Following up his award winning religious drama Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski looks to his own family’s history for the inspiration behind Cold War, using elements of the story from the lives of his parents. Like his previous film, it is shot in pristine black and white and again in 4:3 picture ratio, which surprisingly adds something to the intimacy of the tale, as well as a metaphoric reflection of the them of being under strict control.

Zula begins as just another face in the crowd of wannabe singers but it doesn’t take long to establish a slight scheming side to her, although not in a malicious way, more ruthless ambition. Zula encourages a fellow singer to sing her audition piece, concludes it would be better as a duet, thus gets into the audition quicker which allows her to show off by out-singing her rival.

Wiktor and Zula’s union is limited to gazes across the room during after show functions before sneaking off for a mutual physical exhibition of their feelings. Since the film runs for 88 minutes (81 before the credits roll) and the story spans over a decade there is no messing about, demonstrated in the regular leaps forward in time sometimes two or three years apart.

As beguiling as she is, Zula comes with some dubious baggage that is ether genuine or some self-promotion to give her an enigmatic edge. Delineated in one sentence when asked if, as rumoured, she killed her father – “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference” – we get to understand Zula has a lot she wants, and needs, to leave behind and this gig is her ticket to freedom.

They had planned to flee the group whilst in Berlin and escape to France, but Zula is held up at post show dinner, leaving Wiktor to head to Paris alone. From here, the formula is set – Wiktor and Zula reunite at various intervals over the years across various European locations per the Mazurek tour. Despite being in new relationships, the flame never extinguished between them, and though each time ends with a painful parting.  

It is for this reason that as the film progresses, Zula becomes more difficult to read thus is harder to like, always running hot and cold on Wiktor. Even when they get to spend a lot of time together in France and Wiktor writes a song for Zula with his French lyricist lover Juliette (Jeanne Balibar), Zula behaves like a petulant brat with her protean moods and hostile behaviour towards Wiktor.

Yet Wiktor remains in love with her and somewhere beneath her frosty, weary exterior, Zula is still in love with Wiktor, but the further they continue to go round in circles the only question I found myself asking is “Why bother?”. I doubt this was Pawlikowski’s intent with the story but the longer this went on, the less I warmed to the couple and lost interest in their plight.

Perhaps the idea is that love conquers all, but for this writer Pawlikowski doesn’t quite present a convincing argument for this; in fact, he seems to be suggesting the opposite, if the physical toll it takes on Zula in particular, who goes from vivacious to haggard, wasn’t a big enough indicator of what a toxic relationship can do to you. At least we can assume that this wasn’t the case for Pawlikowski’s parents.

Whilst the story didn’t quite hit the target for me, I can’t fault the presentation. The use of black and white is completely justified in how effective it is in capturing the mood and essence of the various periods. In particular, the stark Chiaroscuro effect in the musical performances, especially the jazz clubs, is wonderfully evocative and eye-catching as a series of stunning tableau vivant.

This also brings out the raw magnetism of Joanna Kulig as an actress, able to express so much by doing little in this committed performance. Whether she is the compliant chorus girl, Parisian chanteuse, or fractious lover, Kulig covers the spectrum from poised to incendiary, always on point. Tomasz Kot is urbane and steady as Wiktor, yet sturdy enough as a credible sparring partner for Zula and tortured artist.   

Even though the run time is nice and brisk, the time skips and choppy editing hurt the clarity of some of the events in places, but I can see that Pawlikowski was in no mood for wasting time. The music soundtrack is a mix of traditional Polish folk, staunch Soviet doctrine, and smooth jazz – an eclectic mix that could only work in a film like this.

As a piece of artistic cinema Cold War is exceptionally gorgeous but I personally found it emotionally distant and hard to invest in the romance of it, though the theme of freedom and being trapped as being tragically interchangeable is achingly potent.