A standout scene from Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War involves a simple song and dance. No words are spoken, but nothing needs to be said—the actions speak volumes. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is looking defeated at the bar, embittered by her lover Wiktor (Tomsz Kot) ignoring her. The smooth baritone of Bill Haley suddenly blares through the club’s speakers. Zula quickly gets up and drunkenly dances with feverish energy, moving from man to man, and then on top of the bar, much to the chagrin of Wiktor. Music becomes a source of liberation. If Zula is drifting from the jazz leanings of her lover, is she drifting from him as well? The scene unfolds in a transfixing single take—a fleeting moment of chaotic serenity.
Cold War is a mesmerising epic told in miniature. The scope is big—a sprawling tale that spans 15 years and several countries—but the focus is contained, intimately focused on the tumultuous love affair between a mismatched pair of musicians. The beginning plays out like a Polish X Factor: Wiktor and his partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) are talent scouting across the country, looking for talented singers for a folk choral group. He is immediately drawn to Zula—she’s not the most skillful by any means, but there’s just something different about her. “Are you interested in me because of my talent? Or just in general?” Zula asks. Sure, he’s interested in her in that sense, as evidenced by a sexual tryst not long after meeting, but he also sees a glimmer of star power in her that could take her far beyond the humble beginnings of a folk choir. But Irena has been doing some digging—Zula is not a country girl at all, but a criminal on parole for stabbing her father. It’s too late though, they’ve already fallen in love, for better or for worse.
The ensemble was intended to celebrate and promote Polish culture, but the manager soon succumbs to pressure and morphs the group into a Communist propaganda machine. As a budding jazz musician and composer, Wiktor refuses to be a Soviet mouthpiece and proposes crossing the Iron Curtain to Zula. They set up a meeting place at the wall, Wiktor shows up, but the resistant Zula doesn’t. And so, the film periodically picks up whenever the pair meets again over the course of their decades-long romance, observing a relationship that was clearly doomed from the start. The rocky romance at the film’s core is supported by a pair of wonderfully empathetic performances, but Joanna Kulig is in her own league. With the physical resemblance of the lovechild of Kate McKinnon and Scarlett Johansson, she resonates with an infectious energy that’s tinged with melancholic longing; it’s a riveting sight to watch Zula grow, with and without Wiktor.
Much like Pawlikowski’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Ida, Cold War is shot in nostalgic black-and-white and a 4:3 aspect ratio. The monochrome palette evokes a timeless feeling, almost a romantic view of the past if the events creeping on the outskirts weren’t occurring, and the aspect ratio creates a greater feeling of intimacy. When filmed in close-up, the pair of lead characters are relegated to the bottom of the frame, their heads surrounded by empty space. It’s in this empty space that the weight of past decisions and mistakes become a physical entity, permanently looming over their minds. The film plays out like a series of vignettes, each accentuated by a sudden cut to black. The episodic structure complements the film particularly well, with each pause emphasising the brevity of every encounter between the passionate lovers. It’s as if the time they spend apart from each other takes place in a loveless limbo, only for life to start again when they are reunited. And at a lean 84 minutes, all the fat has been trimmed off the edges; not a minute feels wasted.
Cold War is a tone poem that oozes romance. Not because the pair stay together, but rather the opposite. We fall for tragic romances because the circumstances responsible for keeping lovers apart makes us yearn for them to be together even more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. In Cold War, and as true to life as well, ideology shapes love. The constant shadow of Communism is the persistent wedge between the pair. However, it’s not only the titular war that threatens to separate Wiktor and Zula, but a cold war of hearts. They are forever entangled in each other’s gravitational pull in some kind of twisted cycle. Whenever they are apart, they miss each other’s company, doing whatever it takes to be reunited even for the briefest moment. When they are together, they clash and collide with bitter hostility. It may not be so far-fetched to draw comparisons to La La Land, a film about lovers whose paths diverge so far that a stable relationship is as distant as their ambitions. Love is never easy, and Cold War shows that in droves. The world does everything in its power to keep Wiktor and Zula apart, but sometimes, just being there and simply loving someone with your heart wide open is enough.