“Even when we find ourselves reaching for a little more to finish the story’s far-reaching ends, [director Paweł] Pawlikowski’s artistry stands firm with unmistakable command.”
by Ken Bakely
In Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, we’re again ensconced in the visual style that was introduced in his previous film, Ida. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal supplies more of the full-frame, black-and-white imagery that has proved so striking before, with chilly compositions in tight spaces emphasizing the uncomfortable pressures faced by the characters. Both films are set in Poland during the communist years, and by angling his stories in an oppressive setting during uncertain times, Pawlikowski engages in obvious visual symbolism from the get-go. But while the strategy may be unsubtle, the results are often nuanced and engaging. Scenes move like deft poetry, creating violent rivers of emotion rushing under the surface of an icy top layer. This film, spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, traces the volatile romance between Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young singer in a folk music choir, and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a thirtysomething composer who is one of the ensemble’s creative directors.
Their pairing begins with deception (Zula, a trained singer from the city, claims to be an impoverished girl from a rural village to stand out in her audition), and to some extent, that’s a fitting opening move for what’s to come. Zula is as much of a breakout star as can be for a state-envisioned cultural project, and she has potential as a solo artist. The ensemble travels throughout the Eastern Bloc, getting tantalizingly close to the edge of the Iron Curtain, and traversing right through it as their success blossoms. Wiktor, longing for freedom and opportunity, wishes to escape to the West, and has such a desire to do so that he will do it regardless of whether Zula follows him. Distance, both physical and emotional, is a key marker of their lives, as they embark on a perpetually on again, off again relationship over Cold War’s chronological and geographical sprawl, a wide scope that Pawlikowski manages to achieve with general success, despite his austere storytelling packed into a short runtime.
The recurring idea here is that Zula and Wiktor are existentially at odds, with their mostly unspoken feelings mirroring the nature of the contemporaneous global conflict referenced in the film’s title. Pawlikowski never attempts to fool us into thinking that there ever could be a point where this rocky interplay could spontaneously smoothen out. They need each other in the most fearfully captivating sense of the term: there’s no one else who approaches their passions and chases their future with the same barely-contained feverishness that they do. Kulig and Kot aren’t just well-worn when they’re together onscreen, they’re downright overwhelming at times, carrying the traits of their characters that they’ve independently developed, and bringing them together for the roughly strewn and arresting dynamic that they share. Zula and Wiktor are the real-world tonic to the cheery folk and love songs that the troupe performs, though they both inhibit their art with such obsessive zeal that we understand that, in some fashion, both extremes are necessary to understand the complexity of their lives. It’s not that the music or their body language particularly communicates on their own; it’s the space between them and in tandem that’s so effective at saying what needs to be said.
Those quiet innovations of storytelling and emotion represent Pawlikowski’s top strengths as a filmmaker. Cold War is a transcendent experience when we’re in the full speed of its journeys, but its briefness and clipped pace keeps it from holding that mystique for as long as we would like. Something key is missing in the balance, as a disproportionate percentage of the film is subsequently devoted to setting up further jumps in time and placement, requiring new settings to fully take hold before we can learn more about these characters. Yet what we have is still bold and vibrant in a way that may surprise viewers who might make assumptions about a movie light on dialogue or vivid moments of excess. It keeps going, right up until an ending still tightly controlled even in its biggest flourishes. Through the specific messages and plot points are dependent on the exact eras, places, and political situations that the characters live through, the film – aesthetically and otherwise – carries a harrowing quality that both brings us closer and pushes us away. Even when we find ourselves reaching for a little more to finish the story’s far-reaching ends, Pawlikowski’s artistry stands firm with unmistakable command.