There has been so much praise heaped upon Cold War since its release that I wonder if the hype has elevated the film so much that I was always destined to be underwhelmed. I mean, yes, the rich black and white photography is ravishing, the shot composition is quite sublime at times and even the boxy aspect ratio works really well, but I didn’t find the love story particularly romantic or convincing, which is worrying in that director Pawel Pawlikowski has made no secret of the fact that the characters, and the tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship between them, are drawn from the life of his parents. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are from opposite sides of the tracks; he is a jazz musician and conductor scouting the Polish countryside for singers to form a vocal group in a bid to ensure the survival of traditional folk songs in a time of great political and social upheaval, while she is from a rural village and on parole for having killed her abusive father. From the moment they meet, they exchange furtive glances and embark on a stormy affair that evolves over two decades in numerous locales across Europe.
It is 1950’s Poland and Wiktor is travelling with his lover and colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza) in search of undiscovered talent that he can recruit into a choral ensemble to showcase the authentic sounds of Poland, ensuring that “no more will the art of the people go to waste!” It is during one of the audition sessions that Zula impresses Wiktor; her turbulent spirit as much as her talent leaving an impression that lands her a place in the group. About her father’s death, Zula is anything but contrite, declaring that “he mistook me for my mother, I showed him the difference with a knife.” In no time at all, the pair are embroiled in a romance that endures across numerous locations and periods of social unrest. Viktor retreats to Paris to work as a musician, but Zula rejects his pleas to defect with him, opting to remain with the troupe, which has been co-opted by the authorities and moulded into a Stalinist propaganda machine.
As the years pass, Zula and Wiktor reunite and breakup, and reunite and breakup again, and again, and by focussing primarily on the time they spend together rather than delving into what happens when they are apart, Pawlikowski is able to bring a story than spans decades in at a very respectable 90 minute running time. Beyond the romance, Cold War is film about the loss and sacrifice of living in exile and its impact on relationships at a time when betrayal and deception are often necessities for survival. Despite their lengthy separations and the various other impediments they face along the way (notwithstanding the fact that Wiktor is as charismatic as a cardboard box), the romance somehow endures. In contrast to the staid sense of superiority that Wiktor exudes, Zula possesses a vibrant personality and a scene in which she dances drunkenly to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock perfectly encapsulates the films twin themes of freedom and entrapment.
At the heart of it all is Kulig who, having previously worked with Pawlikowski on The Woman in the Fifth and Ida, delivers a mesmeric performance of considerable range and depth as Zula transforms from not-so-innocent young woman to sultry jazz singer and showgirl. A dark musical full of gaps and silences, Cold War requires the audience to fill in the narrative fissures in a bid to understand why these two characters keep reconnecting. The stunning cinematography from Lukasz Zal evolves from carefully composed static frames to free-form movements that match the musical shifts of the film, with Marcin Masecki credited with the “jazz and song arrangements”. There is so much to like about Cold War that, for the most part, the acclaim it has garnered is easy to understand, but the love story is ultimately hard to embrace, primarily because Wiktor is so devoid of personality or charisma that it is impossible to believe that Zula would be so smitten by somebody so utterly bland.