Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is only just beginning to get his due, and it’s come with a reconnect to his home country. Having spent much of his career living in the U.K., Pawlikowski returned to Poland for his Oscar-winning drama, Ida, which followed a young Polish girl on the verge of becoming a Catholic nun. His latest, Cold War, takes a hauntingly beautiful look at post-war Poland to follow the tumultuous romance between two people who are driven together and apart by forces beyond their control.
Much like Ida, the film is shot in gorgeous black & white by cinematographer Lukasz Zal, giving the feel you’re watching some piece of history passed on across generations. And in a way that’s true. Pawlikowski loosely based the story of music conductor Viktor (Tomasz Kot) and salt-of-the-earth singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) on his own parents, which explains why it feels like such a personal story being told. Viktor and Zula are from two different worlds; he is trying to find something redeeming in Poland by putting together a musical show featuring performances by regular, everyday Polish people. Zula is one of them, but there’s something different about her. The desperation we sense in her isn’t like the others; it’s raw and cutthroat, rather than sad. We witness it first hand as she manipulates her way into the spotlight, not only catching Viktor’s eye but becoming the act’s star performer.
The cold war of the title is more the tense hostilities that have gripped much of the world. While Viktor and Zula fall in love and for a while seem inseparable, there’s a fundamental schism in the way they view Poland. She has found something in Poland that she never had before, fame and appreciation. As the Polish government reins in greater control over the show, with acts performed in East Berlin in honor of Stalin and other communist leaders, Viktor feels he must escape. He sets his eyes towards Paris, asking Zula to meet him so they can go together. When she doesn’t show, it tears their relationship in two, and yet they just can’t quit one another entirely.
Cold War is more ambitious than its slight 88-minute frame can handle, so Pawlikowski only fills in the blanks when absolutely necessary. On the one hand, he trust his audience to understand the pressures of the outside world on this mismatched pair, expecting that we will figure out what they are going through by the nature of their circumstances. While that’s appreciated to avoid a lengthy and unnecessary history lesson, it also keeps us at an emotional distance from Viktor and Zula as their repeated encounters of a 15-year stretch grow increasingly dire. He moves to Paris and struggles as a club pianist, while she grows more famous in Poland. A visit to France only creates tension between the two of them. Zula is nothing there, while she is somebody back home. She leaves accusing Viktor of being a different man than he used to be. Their situations evolve over subsequent encounters until they finally meet a grim intersection, which leads to a heartbreaking final act and the time when Cold War strikes its most affecting moment.
Part of my issue with Cold War may be that I never bought into Viktor and Zula’s relationship, mainly because Kot’s performance leaves much to be desired. It’s not necessarily bad, but it fails to measure up to Kulig’s captivating presence that makes us want to follow Zula’s chaotic journey more than Viktor’s dull Paris life.
Pawlikowski invests a lot into making Cold War as authentic as personal, from the tremendous musical numbers to the period details. If only Pawlikowski had given this story that means so much to him more room to maneuver it would have more of a lasting impact.