Directed by: Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, Piotr Borkowski
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Even with circumstances never lining up in an ideal way some people find themselves continually drawn to each other. Reasons don’t usually come with it, but something about them will never let such a bond fade. A painful, heartfelt, and emotional journey, Cold War covers an incredible love by two people and how life can interrupt something so meaningful.
In post-World War II Poland, Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) seeks to put together a Polish folk group made up entirely of unknown talents. In this selection process, he meets Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig). After some performances with this new troupe, the electricity sparking between them explodes and they begin a romance that goes through a roller coaster of circumstances across a few decades.
With its crisp black-and-white cinematography and beautifully bleak love story, Cold War provides plenty to appreciate. Opening in a cold and snowy time in Poland, many of the interactions come with this level of frost. Every interaction comes with sharpness and lacking any true humanity until Wiktor and Zula lock eyes and interact. As she auditions to be part of the troupe, he shows an interest in her, not solely due to her singing ability, but something about her draws him to her. Something almost inexplicable, which then begins a romance with enough passion to thaw the cold exterior set around them.
The machinations of this relationship come more in the looks rather than the words they speak. As the years progress and they continue to be with and leave each other for various reasons, this pairing fights when they use their words and make love when they utilize their eyes. The first instance occurs after a terrific performance by the troupe and Wiktor leans against a wall serving similarly like a mirror. The camera looks at Wiktor as he stares at something we cannot see until looking at the reflection behind him. You can finally see Zula staring right back at him across the room. With all of the celebration occurring with the other performers, these two cannot take their eyes off each other, which leads to their first sexual encounter. They have this incredible connection, which appears to be at its strongest when they just gaze into each other’s eyes, but everything gets complicated when life gets in the way and they must face reality.
In the form of tragedy, their relationship does not have the fairytale style of connection where they find love and stay together. Their high moments of affection always get accompanied by the bitter reality around them. No matter how much they try to hold onto those moments of fierce passion, they cannot escape the communist world they have found themselves in. For as much as their relationship remains the focal point of the story, the historical significance of their time adamantly stands in the background. Taking place during the communist rising under Stalin, the art put together by Wiktor and performed by the troupe meets the complications of state interference. With their performances, they provide entertainment in the form of Polish folklore and music, but the opportunity gets strongly requested for them to perform songs about the greatness of Stalin and the communist regime. While governments can help prop up art financially, the direct interference of it usually results in pure propaganda, which we see with Wiktor’s troupe. It becomes a battle of compromise Wiktor must face with his art and then on a personal level with Zula.
Joanna Kulig as Zula gives a truly spectacular performance, as she appears to be a meek woman looking for opportunity and progresses into such a strong person unwilling to take the crap Wiktor and others lay on her. Her performance comes off to be so physical not only through her vocal cords but also in the way the camera follows her. The best scene illustrating this appears when she drunkenly dances to “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” at a club. The way she shifts to different dance partners in front of Wiktor shows a balance of power and maturity she has accrued in her years. She has so much more confidence in herself and how she can control how others behave around her. Zula becomes such a fascinating character to follow throughout the story even if the story focuses a bit more on Wiktor.
As such a personal piece of filmmaking for director Paweł Pawlikowski, he lays it all out to bear about these two people. He dedicates the film to his parents and has acknowledged the events occurring in this feature are loosely based on the experiences of his mother and father. That alone must be its own odd experience to put together. Creating such a passion between two people representing his parents probably could be psychologically studied, but it also shows a level of affection he has for his parents and the impact they have on the Polish filmmaker. This affection becomes clear in the way he captures the rest of the world around Wiktor and Zula and how he views the couple. You can almost internally feel the warmth difference in those scenes.
Cold War will certainly provide instances where it lives up to the first word in its title, but it will also invite you to witness such a fiery and inevitable relationship. The ups and downs the two have will make you question whether or not these two should have ever been together and then in other instances, it appears they were destined to always be at each other’s side. A deeply romantic experience all captured by stunning cinematography, which displays the beauty of the vast Polish countryside and the stark interior chambers of government buildings. A spellbinding film filled with so much love.