The winner of Cannes’ Best Director award this year, Paweł Pawlikowski returns from Oscar success (2013’s Ida) with Cold War, a sweeping romantic epic that recalls the Golden Age of Hollywood without sharing that period’s tendency towards narrative excess. Shot in vivid black and white and told in brief, elliptical episodes across the divided Europe of its title, it’s inspired by the toing-and-froing dynamics of Pawlikowski’s own parents’ relationship.
Sharing Pawlikowski’s father’s name is Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an ethnologist and musical director who tours the provinces of post-war Poland in search of material for a “back to the roots” cultural project he’s working on with collaborator Elena (Ida’s headstrong aunt, Agata Kulesza). Recordings of old folk tunes in hand, the two preside over a boot camp of sorts, auditioning and instructing young Poles in the lyrics and dance steps of their forebears. The idea is that the troupe they assemble will reinvigorate war-ravaged Poland by reminding it of its once-vibrant roots as if evoking the distant past will help to blot out recent history. It’s a government scheme, of course, as the supervisory presence of Communist Party cog Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) signals.
But out of this exercise in nostalgia comes something new and green: auditionee Zula (a sublime Joanna Kulig). From the off, she’s a curious, indomitable presence, choosing to perform a song from a contemporary Russian movie when the audition notes clearly stipulate Polish folk tunes. Wiktor, whom we sense is too much of an intellectual to really believe in this kind of work, is instantly taken with her unconventionality, and even more so when he discovers the true strength of her spirit: “[My father] mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference”.
A brief flash of black moves the action on to a new place, and a new year: East Berlin, 1952. Mazurek, Wiktor’s troupe, have reached such heady heights of success that they’ve been booked to perform at the International Festival of Youth in pre-Wall Berlin. By now, Mazurek’s programme has diversified a bit: along with their folk music, they also sing odes to Stalin and Soviet ideology. Any enthusiasm Wiktor may have had for his work is gone — completely vaporized by such a flagrant intrusion of politics on his sacred art — and so the Berlin gig becomes for him an opportunity for escape. Defection is worthless without Zula, however, and despite her impulsive tendencies, there is reluctance on her part to join him in his leap of faith from behind the Iron Curtain.
This is the point on which the two are fatefully at odds, and it’s the trigger for more flashes of black as Cold War progresses through time and across space – but always with the same resolute focus on Wiktor and Zula’s relationship – from 1952 to 1964, and from Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia back to Poland. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the film with Janusz Glowacki, doesn’t fill in the blanks for us; we never learn, for instance, how it is that Wiktor comes to find success as a jazz musician on the Parisian nightclub scene, or why Zula’s life takes the curious turn it does in 1957.
But in terms of comprehending Cold War in its fullness, the film’s lack of explanation for the gaps in the narrative — every clash between Wiktor and Zula and each corresponding moment of détente — doesn’t matter. We instinctively understand the destructive, total co-dependency of their relationship because we’ve seen it before, in countless iterations: most memorably in movies that were shot when black and white was a necessity, rather than an aesthetic choice. Pawlikowski knows that overdoing a story like this would obscure its charm, and so he boils down the action of fifteen years into less than 90 minutes, trusting that Cold War‘s drawing on a primal myth of cinema will be all its audience needs. It is.
Cold War’s cinematography, similarly, works with few tools. As with Ida, Pawlikowski has rejected modern luxuries like color and widescreen, preferring instead to use the Academy ratio (the format of yesteryear) and shoot in the honesty of good old black and white. Viewed this way, the film is as cinematically regressive as you can get, short of Pawlikowski going the whole hog and hitting DELETE on the sound files. But more than being hipsterishly mannered, this style fits the precision of the storytelling perfectly. The square-ish frame of the Academy ratio erases any suggestion of ambiguity in the film: we know exactly what Pawlikowski wants us to focus on because there is no peripheral action to distract us with. And despite the restrictions of black and white, Łukasz Żal’s cinematography feels visually luxurious; thanks to him and the lighting team, everything – even life under hard-line Soviet rule – looks beautiful.
There’s a visual precision to the film that’s matched by the near-military rigor of the troupe’s performance scenes, but there are also some superbly unrestrained moments, too. Wiktor’s impassioned jazz piano performance in a Parisian club is one, and Zula’s rapturous reaction to a rock ‘n’ roll song is another. It’s no coincidence that music is so heavily involved in both of these standout moments; it’s the lifeblood of both characters and, as a result, of Cold War. The way Wiktor transmutes the melody of the Polish folk song Zula sings through the medium of jazz, his musical mother tongue, spells out the way these star-crossed lovers rely on music as a continent-spanning means of romantic dialogue.
Maybe it’s because Cold War – in its cinematography, period, music, story, and the Monroe-esque magnetism of Kulig – recalls the glamor of a cinema long gone and much mourned, but it feels like the restoration of something elemental to modern cinema. Largely by not being set there, it is, also, a meditation on home, a subject Pawlikowski is no doubt interested in, having spent much of his working life outside of his native Poland. Like Ida, Cold War is the product of his return to Warsaw; given the caliber of both films, for cinema’s sake, let’s hope he never leaves.
Cold War will be released in the US on 21 December.