Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a breathtakingly melancholic tale of two star-crossed lovers caught in the political turmoil of postwar Soviet-influenced Poland. Stunningly shot in high contrast black-and-white, with old-school “academy ratio” formatting, Cold War is a modern epic: a love story spanning across four countries and two decades, distilled into a finely tuned 77 minutes of lustfully loaded episodic encounters.
Like Ida, Pawlikowski’s coming-of-age film about a young Polish nun who uncovers her Jewish heritage (which won the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film), Cold War is deeply interested in themes of national identity and authenticity. Post-WWII Poland was a Poland of shifting borders. The occupying Soviets had recently forced out the Germans and Ukrainians in the West and East, while the prior invasion of Nazi Germany had lead to the almost total demise of the country’s large Jewish population. For the first time in Poland’s history, the Central European melting pot had become ethnically homogeneous, the rich culture of its once prominent minorities slipping away from history.
Cold War opens in 1949, with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his colleague, Irena (Agata Kulesza), touring the Polish countryside with sound equipment, talking to remote villagers and collecting recordings of folk songs. As they attempt to immortalize this quickly disappearing heritage, they compile their musical findings into a touring concert-presentation their state-sponsored business oversight man (Borys Szyc) calls “the music of your grandparents and their grandparents.”
In an attempt to keep the performance as authentic as possible, Wiktor and Irena task themselves with casting and training an entirely locally-sourced ensemble. Wiktor almost immediately falls for one of the cast members, Zula (an electrifying Joanna Kulig), launching the love affair that will continue after the original touring performance is adapted into communist propaganda and Wiktor defects to Paris in an attempt to remain creatively independent.
Although Pawlikowski and his cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, have once again found the perfect balance of period-piece aesthetic nostalgia and visual originality, what gives Cold War its enduring complexity is its music, which seams to both amplify and undermine every scene. The film’s unofficial theme song, “Dwa Serduszka” (translated to “Two Hearts”) first makes its appearance sung by a peasant girl in one of Wiktor’s opening recordings. Over the course of the next hour, the song undergoes multiple permutations: into a kitsch peasant dance number with Zula as its star, into a bebop piano improvisation by Wiktor in a Parisian nightclub, and into a sultry jazz recording sure to earn Zula an invite into the Western European art scene.
Roiling beneath the two musicians’ evolving love affair and musicology is the growing realization that the cultural authenticity they seek is one that has been falsely manufactured. Only much later do we understand the significance of an earlier moment from Wiktor and Zula’s first interaction in the casting room for the peasant production. Wiktor asks Zula to sing a song that means something to her. Wiktor sits, mesmerized by Zula’s voice, despite her choosing a number from the 1934 Soviet movie musical Jolly Fellows. As much as Wiktor yearns for a romantic connection with his Polish past, the politics of the present can’t help but get in the way.
In the end, Cold War is a piece of art that attempts to understand art, and thus, its journey is often elliptical. At times, Pawlikowski’s brevity means that much of the film’s action happens off-screen in the undocumented moments and years between scenes. Although the strength of the acting leaves us craving more time with these characters on screen, it is hard to not think that this craving is purposeful on Pawlikowski’s part. Wiktor and Zula long for each other—and for the cultural history and nostalgia they each come to represent to the other—and so, it seems fitting that we too must share in their longing.