Zimna wojna – Cold War

Poland, United Kingdom, France, 2018

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

With Joanna Kulig (Zula), Tomasz Kot (Wictor), Agata Kulesza (Irena), Borys Szic (Kaczmarek)

The love story behind this stern title unfolds over fifteen years, from 1949 to 1964. It starts and ends in Communist-ruled Poland but there are stints in the former East Germany and Yugoslavia and, above all, in Paris. The lovers meet as the new Polish regime born after World War Two under Soviet guidance tries to foster a popular culture respecting the socialist ideals and connecting them to the masses. So Wictor, a musician and scholar, Irena, a colleague, and Kaczmarek, a party official, crisscross the countryside to record folksy music and dances so as to build a repertoire that would be then taught to youngsters hoping to become entertainers. The music school they end up establishing together is a success.

Among the students Zula cuts a striking figure. She is stubborn, clever, hard-headed and ambitious; she has also a compelling stage presence. She has caught the eye of Wictor, and she likes it like that. Despite differences in age and background (she comes from the countryside and is under a cloud as she nearly killed her dad who wanted to abuse her whereas he is the quintessential well-bred artist seemingly comfortable with the new regime), they begin an affair they hope to be lifelong.

Dancing the night away and standing outside a dark power: Tomasz Kot holding Joanna Kulig

They make it hard to sustain, however. Perhaps to escape the attention of Kaczmarek who likes Zula and stands for the party’s interests or perhaps because another society would overlook their counter-intuitive relations, they decide to go to the West out of the blue. But at the last minute, Zula doesn’t cross the border in East-Berlin and Wictor ends up alone in France. The film turns then into the sad chronicle of lovers trying to bridge the distance between their lives (he struggles to make a living with his skills in a jazz club and then in the movie business while she thrives at the top of the music school’s troupe) as the years go by. Even when Zula manages to stay away from Poland for quite a time, she quickly feels ill at ease in Paris. Her fiery and brusque character bumps against the more patient and suave nature of Wictor.  Yet it is Wictor who takes the most extraordinary decision, which is to move back in Poland to follow her (instead of him always waiting for her outside). This lands him in prison. The sacrifice Zula makes to get him out after five years (a marriage she loathes) would call for another, greater and more poignant sacrifice he would readily accept.

The classic narrative of the star-crossed love whose players face many obstacles until they decide to die together to get in the hereafter what the real world refuses to them is adapted to a tragic period of European history, allowing the director to explore the intimate suffering Communism has inflicted on many (including on his parents to whom the movie is dedicated). His narration tends to outline the troubles rather than lingering on them, training his camera instead on the few words, gestures and incidents that characterize situations and people in each of the short sections that make up the 88-minute feature and which are separated from each other by a black screen. This focused and no-flab approach keeps the film from becoming a long-winded and predictable lamentation on a tragic past; instead it brilliantly suggests how harsh life was while highlighting the simple, candid and passionate nature of the love affair between Zula and Wictor; it is riveting to watch how sequences so tightly made can create emotions that are so strong (the cast’s outstanding performances matter a lot here). The ravishing black and white cinematography fixes the story firmly in its context and adds a sober and dramatic edge that fits with the tensions running across it.

Music takes up a fair share of the soundtrack, as dialogues are usually concise. In an ironic testament of the epoch, it is a song played in a Soviet flick which serves as a symbol of the lovers’ sentiments. Describing the heart’s desires, it is sung a cappella in Poland as it brings Zula and Wictor together and becomes a jazz tune when they try to stick together in Paris; the song’s fate nicely captures the different stages of their troubled passion; and it is not played at the end: at this point, they are so frustrated by their situations and past that keeping the flame alive with memories matter less than finding an idealistic exit from their earth-bound destiny.

Music also allows the director to make a political commentary. “Zimna wojna – Cold War” squarely demonstrates how the communist dictatorships manipulated culture to bolster their legitimacies and to promote their regimes inside their borders but also beyond. Nationalism had never been a stranger in these regimes’ inner workings, quite the contrary. They used it with the same concerns as previous and contemporary bourgeois states: to assert their existence and value (and cultural tourism proved to be a valuable tool to achieve that). The poetic song of Zula and Wictor as well as Wictor’s work in Paris stand by contrast as spontaneous and natural artistic expressions that effortlessly touch anyone; they are genuinely free; they have nothing to do with the impressive but contrived performances of the music school, which has reinvented a tradition to serve an ideology (Irena leaves the story because she can no longer accept the way her work as teacher and creator is altered to fulfill new political demands in an early and telling development, shot briefly but effectively like other developments). Popular music’s fate reflects the lovers’ misfortune, highlighting the desperate need for freedom defining both their story and the wider European situation at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *