The personal absolutely is political in this minutely epic, panorama romance from Polish director Pavel Pawlikowski. A sweeping musical odyssey and intimate tragedy of love in one, Cold War spans an epoch marked by mistrust and precarious allegiance but is told entirely in the mirror of a turbulent relationship betwixt a man and a woman. It is a grand achievement and looks magnificent as presented in a dreamlike haze of black and white.
Pawlikowski has noted two principle real-world influences as having inspired his story: his parents, to whom the film is dedicated, and the founders of Polish folk dance group Zespól Piesni i Tanca Mazowsze, Tadeusz Sygietynski and Mira Ziminska. While the film’s turbulent love story takes its cues from the former, its intelligent means of relating contemporary political shifts is achieved through the latter. Music is essential to Pawlikowski’s narrative drive here and comes exquisitely composed by Marcin Masecki. Each of the film’s songs is delivered in scenes that have been divinely choreographed and boast lyrics very much worth paying attention to. Delightfully, such vocal flares often give more insight into events and personal flows than any spiel of exposition could possibly achieve.
The film opens in 1949 and finds a dreamy musician – Tomasz Kot’s Wiktor Warski – and his realist producer – Agata Kulesza’s Irena Bielecka – touring the Polish countryside, in search of ‘authentic’ folk talent. This was an epoch in which self-definition was crucial for Poland, a country still recoiling from a decade from Nazi and Soviet invasions, but such is in the subtext alone; expect no one in Pawlikowski and Janusz Głowacki’s script to explicitly state the contemporary flux. Instead, startling images and dialogic asides offer adroit allusions, dynamically contextualising the story in thoroughly cinematic formulae. The looming rise of a Stalin banner behind the folk choir is a memorable one, reminiscent of period Soviet propaganda films, whilst the off-hand remark in an East Berlin restaurant that the house speciality is made with Baltic fish is telling of the homogenisation at work beyond the iron curtain.
It is with not inconsiderable irony that Wiktor is drawn, during his tour, not to a country peasant but a fraudulent city girl, a femme fatale who auditions with a Russian song she’s pilfered from a pop-up Soviet cinema screening. That Zula Lichoń’s (Joanna Kulig) notoriety is heightened by rumours of a violent streak – ‘He mistook me for my mother, so I showed him the difference with a knife’ – only does to further attract Wiktor and it is not long before they are entwined in passionate liaisons. Their dalliance is short lived, however. Indeed, the union fractures when Wiktor seizes a chance to escape the USSR but Zula remains and rises through echelons of celebrity status. Given the strength of her performance here, Kulig must surely follow suit. With little by way of visual effect, the actor, who previously worked with Pawlikowski on both Ida and The Woman in the Fifth, conveys an immense sense of ageing across the film, whilst never missing a single emotional nuance.
Also reuniting with Pawlikowski from Ida, Łukasz Żal demonstrates a similar talent for capturing era shifts. The ebbs and flows of liberation in the story remain dutifully contained with the old Academy ratio of yesteryear. It’s a move that harkens both to the entrapment imposed upon the film’s ill-fated leads and also the Nouvelle Vague features that leant Pawlikowski inspiration. For all the aching pain that occurs within the perfectly pitched runtime, there is a terrific sense of youthfulness here – particularly in later scenes set in jazzy Paris – and compelling emotional drive. Comparisons to La Dolce Vita, La La Land and Casablanca would all be apt in this context and that’s an impressive reference list to find company in.