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Cold War” is one of those love-among-the-ruins romances that turn suffering into high style. Like its two sexy leads — who fall for each other and keep on falling — the movie has been built for maximum seduction. It has just enough politics to give it heft, striking black-and-white images and an in-the-mood-for-love ambiguity that suggests great mysteries are in store for those who watch and wait. You won’t wait long. The movie runs just 89 minutes, during which swaths of the 20th century flutter by like a flipbook.
It opens in Poland in 1949 with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, a genius of slow-burning longing), a musician, touring the countryside gathering folk music. He and an attractively no-nonsense colleague, Irena (Agata Kulesza), record villagers whose plaintive, haunting music is a vestige of the rapidly receding past. (Their work brings to mind that of the American musicologist Alan Lomax, who made field recordings of folk musicians.) The writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski doesn’t tend to overshare, but the government toady riding with Wiktor and Irena telegraphs that the recordings have a less than innocent purpose.
That official emissary is Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), who with Wiktor and Irena facilitates the creation of a folk dance and music ensemble, Mazurek, housed in a dilapidated country villa. (The ensemble is based on a real Polish group, Mazowsze.) It’s at this villa that young dancers, singers and musicians are to dedicate themselves to the nation’s patrimony (“music, born in the fields”) in what Kaczmarek describes as “the fierce and noble struggle.” As Wiktor and Irena silently watch, conveying much through expressive silence, Kaczmarek tries to stir up the quiet crowd of applicants. “No more will the talents of the people go to waste — hurrah!” he announces, earning a weak cheer.
The relative exoticism of the milieu and all the healthy young people who soon fill the ensemble generate more enthusiasm for the viewer, as does the arresting black-and-white imagery. Working within the pleasing, boxy confines of an old-school aspect ratio, Pawlikowski by turns isolates his characters or clutters his shots with bodies, creating a snapshot of collectivism. As in his previous movie, “Ida,” he likes to place characters in the lower half of the image, leaving a lot of acreage above their heads. (The television series “Mr. Robot” turned this kind of arrangement into a mannerist tic.) Here, the ample headroom at once draws your eye to the characters and makes them seem smaller in their world.The movie settles into its groove when Wiktor takes up with Zula (a terrifically vivid Joanna Kulig), a singer with a dramatic voice, pillowy lips and visceral ambition fueled by desperation.
As she and Wiktor trade looks and steam up the screen, the ensemble comes into shape: Costumes are sewn and dances rehearsed in crisply edited, unfussy scenes. A banner reading “We Welcome Tomorrow” is strung across the school entrance, and the students — under Irena’s hawkish gaze, with Wiktor at the piano — are transformed into culture workers for the Polish People’s Republic. It suggests a fresh start for the students, for the country, and generates a palpable if cautious optimism.
That doesn’t last. A blandly villainous emissary from the government descends, forcing the ensemble to adapt Soviet-style socialist realism. As a representative of the new nation, the group now should have a repertoire that addresses, he explains, “land reform, world peace and threats to it,” an edict that pushes art into the service of propaganda. Pawlikowski doesn’t pad his movie with dialogue, but instead distills this new world order in a few sentences and the image of Irena’s fading smile. When the apparatchik calls for “a strong number about the leader of the world proletariat,” it sounds like a bad joke (or a movie executive note), but it chills the room. It also slowly undoes Wiktor and Zula.
Pawlikowski packs a lot into “Cold War,” often elliptically. Wiktor and Zula soon separate and settle in different countries only to reunite and separate once more. Throughout, their longing for each other — as well as the music they make, together and apart — expresses searching ideas about art and authenticity, national identity and cultural nostalgia. Crucially, when Irena defends the ensemble, saying that its work is based on “authentic folk art,” Wiktor keeps silent. What they’re doing has little relationship to their field recordings, but like the urban audiences raptly watching these folk pastiches — emblems of a vanishing Poland — Irena is clinging to an identity that is nearly lost.
That loss permeates “Cold War” as the decades pass and the scenery changes. Wiktor ends up in Paris, where he plays piano in a jazz club. (Soviet-influenced Poland declared jazz bourgeois, degenerate junk, driving it underground.) In France, Wiktor embraces a caricature of bohemian life, living in a garret that is only somewhat less fanciful than the one that Gene Kelly inhabits in “An American in Paris.” Wiktor is a Polish expat playing African-American music in Paris, pursuing an illusion of freedom as Zula — whom he calls the woman of his life — performs communist kitsch and gradually falls to pieces. (Poor Irena departs the movie after the social realist hammer comes down.)
Pawlikowski has ideas he wants you to chew over, but at times his narrative brevity can make the story feel as if it’s stopping before it has really begun. If you want more, it’s because the worlds he opens up and his two impossible, irresistible lovers are so beguiling that you would like to linger longer, learn more, see more. The movie is filled with ordinary and surprising beauty, with gleaming and richly textured surfaces, and the kind of velvety black chiaroscuro you can get lost in. Its greatest strengths, though, are its two knockout leads, who give the story its heat, its flesh and its heartbreak.Giving the lie to its frigid title, “Cold War” smolders and even burns with the gorgeous, intoxicating atmosphere of star-crossed romance.
Passionate, tempestuous, haunting and assured, this latest from writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski explores, as did his Oscar-winning “Ida,” Poland’s recent past, resulting in a potent emotional story with political overtones that plays impeccably today.
Greatly admired at Cannes, where Pawlikowski took home the director prize, “Cold War” also dominated the recent European Film Awards (winning for film, director, actress and others) and has emerged as a strong rival for “Roma” in this year’s foreign language Oscar race.
Set between 1949 and 1964, at the height of the East-West political standoff that gives it its name, “Cold War” stars top Polish actors Tomasz Kot and the knockout Joanna Kulig as a tempestuous duo whose emotions are so large and so contradictory they could be characters in an opera.
Yet so assured is Pawlikowski’s direction, so convincing are the performances and so involving is Lukasz Zal’s gorgeous black and white cinematography (shot, as was “Ida,” in the old-school film academy screen ratio) that the entire story unfolds with a happening-right-in-front-of-us immediacy that is dazzling.
Adding an extra element to this potent mix are the last three words seen on-screen: “For my parents.”
Set on both sides of the Iron Curtain, “Cold War” is a dramatization of the beyond-tumultuous personal history of the director’s mother and father. He’s even given the protagonists his parents’ first names, Wiktor and Zula.
“As a teenager, I thought my parents were something to be embarrassed about, but as an adult, I think they were the most interesting people I’ve ever known,” the director said in an interview at Cannes.
“Their love story in Warsaw and London was very complicated. Marriage, betrayal, divorce, marriage again, divorce again. And they died just before the Berlin Wall came down.”
“Cold War” begins well before that, in 1949, as three people make their way across the frozen wastes of Poland’s postwar hinterlands.
Ethnomusicologists Wiktor (Kot, one of Poland’s top actors) and Irena (Agata Kulesza, “Ida’s” troubled aunt) and Communist Party apparatchik Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) are united in their search for obscure, often cacophonous “music of the people.”
Next stop is a former grand estate now transformed into a music academy, a place where the trio will be polishing melodies, “the music of your grandparents, the music of pain and humiliation,” and auditioning young performers for the dancing and singing folk ensemble troupe Mazurek (based on the real Polish group Mazowsze).
“No more,” thunders Kaczmarek, who barely believes in the project, “will the talents of the people go to waste.”
Getting off the bus as a potential singer is Zula, played with incendiary charisma and an eye for the main chance by Kulig. Her electrifying performance as a femme fatale both ambitious and gifted, a kind of blond-braided Heidi with a come-hither look, immediately kicks “Cold War” into a higher gear.
Knowing that getting into Mazurek is her only chance out of a dead-end life, Zula expertly maneuvers herself into the best possible position for inclusion. Not that any great subterfuge is necessary. Zula not only turns out to be a kind of Slavic It Girl, someone whose energy, talent and charisma are undeniable, but she and Wiktor also are unmistakably drawn to one another, with results both ecstatic and catastrophic.
On the one hand, “Cold War” leaves no doubt that Wiktor and Zula are truly, madly, deeply in love. But actually getting along day to day is another story.
Not only do they both have volatile artistic temperaments (Kot spent months learning piano and Kulig took on folk dancing) but Wiktor’s tortured aestheticism and Zula’s wary pragmatism are also bound to clash.
And that doesn’t take into account the directives and imperatives of Poland’s ruling Communist Party, determined to enforce not only where but also even how people are allowed to live.
Party line politics first emerge after Mazurek’s successful Warsaw debut. Very nice, a government minister says, but what if in addition to genuine folk melodies, songs were added about the virtues of land reform and the genius of Stalin? No problem, says Kaczmarek and, already intoxicated with Zula, Wiktor goes along for the ride.
Part of the incentive for Wiktor getting more political is concert performances in Prague, Moscow, even Berlin, where in these pre-Wall days, simply walking across to the Western side is still possible.
Wiktor, hungry for the artistic freedom the West represents, is desperate to go; Zula, not surprisingly, is not so sure. It is the business of “Cold War” to passionately play out this push-pull dynamic over more than a dozen years in several cities on both sides of the divide.
Given “Cold War’s” emotional and narrative complexity, it’s a measure of how meticulously made it is that the film clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
Working closely with cinematographer Zal, Pawlikowski has pared away extraneous story moments and seen to it that the dazzling cinematography and ardent acting are in perfect balance.
Performed music is obviously central to “Cold War,” as well as an example of the care with which it is put together. Though you might not notice, key songs are heard three different ways: primitive folk versions, uptempo Mazurek productions and jazzy Parisian ballads. It’s as exciting as it sounds.
Finally, however, “Cold War” succeeds because of its compelling portrait of a volatile relationship, an examination of what we do for love and what love won’t do for us. It’s a tale that’s been told before, and more than once, but this film makes it light up the screen like it’s the very first time.