Cold War is like a film poem weaved of semitones and yearning. Pawlikowski has created one of the funniest and most beautiful melodramas in the history of Polish cinema.
In one of the first sequences of Cold War, Wiktor is teaching Zula how to sing. He is a composer in his early forties, she is a twenty-something from the provinces, who has just joined a communist song and dance ensemble. He plays sequences on the piano, while she tries to sing them. Suddenly, practising scales turns into a half-musical half-romantic encounter – Wiktor starts to create a melody and Zula immediately joins it, beginning a musical dialogue with him. This is how a micro-improvisation starts, a common journey into the unknown, leading the characters through their (sometimes separate) lives.
Their romantic passage leads through two decades and many menacing turns. The Poland of the 1950s meets cold-war Berlin, the 1960s Paris and sunny Yugoslavia. All of these places become scenery for a story about two people who cannot live with each other and do not want to live without each other.
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It might seem that such a spectacular story requires epic impetus and form. However, Pawlikowski remains a film poet in Cold War. To tell a complex story he does not need grand scenes. Single images and a melody suffice, stirring more emotion and saying more than imposing dialogue scenes.
The next sequences of Cold War are also reminiscent of poems. The director does not explain anything, but throws the spectator right into the middle of the story, showing the characters on their subsequent life turns. There are neither classic depictions of break-ups and reconciliations nor heart-breaking, classically melodramatic scenes. The Polish director deliberately refrains from them, choosing to tell the story of Zula and Wiktor following his own rules.
Pawlikowski's film brings to mind the masterpiece opening scene of Bad Timing by Nicolas Roeg, in which a young woman and older man say farewell on a bridge separating communist Czechoslovakia and Austria. Roeg's spectator knew nothing about them and had to figure out the story alone in a few dozen seconds, guessing what led the characters to the border crossing merely by observing small gestures and gazes full of love and embarassment.
Pawlikowski leaves a lot to the viewer's imagination too. He knows that what has to be supposed is sometimes more moving than what is explicitly shown. He is a master of minimalist storytelling. His characters do not say much yet nevertheless we know perfectly at which point in their relationship they are in.
Cold War, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski – Image Gallery
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Still from the film Cold War directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018, Joanna Kulig (left) and Tomasz Kot (right), photo: Łukasz Bąk/Kino Świat
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, starring in the main roles, should be given credit for this. They both created remarkable characters. Him – restrained, a little aloof, seemingly the stabiliser of the relationship. Her – energetic, sensual, slightly uncouth, able to fire their mutual passion. Kot and Kulig excellently capture the energies of their characters – Kot gave Wiktor a sense of deep melancholy and Kulig equipped her character with zeal, humour and musical talent.
The music deserves a few words. Cold War resonates with fantastic melodies – Marcin Masecki prepared jazz arrangements using folk motifs. Pawlikowski turns his music into a storytelling tool. Dwa Serduszka (Two Hearts) a folk song sung by Joanna Kulig in the film, at some point becomes a symbol of being subjugated to national culture, but also, performed again in subsequent arrangements, turns into an emotional commentary on the lives of the characters.
Once more, Pawlikowski takes the spectators on a trip through the turbulences of history. Wiktor's and Zula's affair happens during the times of Stalinism, the Khrushchev Thaw, the Cold War and Iron Curtain, the epoch of ubiquitous secret police and a spine-crushing system. However, it is hard to resist the feeling that Pawlikowski treats history simply as a background against which he can tell the tragic story of two lovers.
In an interview conducted by Tadeusz Sobolewski, the director admitted that in the case of Cold War he was more interested in a private story about his parents – the models for the main characters – than a grand history.
They were a very dramatic couple, constantly fighting, splitting up, going back to each other, marrying other people and then getting back together again. … They would leave the country and then meet abroad again, and split up again. … In life I try to avoid such drama, but it's wonderful to experience it in cinema.
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Still from the film Cold War directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018, photo: Łukasz Bąk/Kino Świat
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Even though grand history interferes in the characters' lives, it is not the chief reason for their misfortune. The spectacle of mutual attraction and pushing away is full of unfulfilled ambitions and fright, a need for change and a fear of change. The characters of Cold War are not history's victims – instead, they are subjected to their own choices, limitations and feelings. Pawlikowski is more interested in a story about unfulfilled love than a narrative about communism and its victims.
Receiving an award for directing in Cannes, Pawlikowski dedicated it to the late Janusz Głowacki, the co-screenwriter of Cold War. His presence can be felt in nearly every scene of the film whose limitless sadness is countered with humourous accents. Pawlikowski incessantly balances between melodramatic sentimentalism and sharp wit, between a fable of unfulfilment and yearning and a historical fresco about the epoch during which even feelings were enslaved. Cold War is a triumph of film poetry over the prose of the screen – a crystal clear, excellently conceived and executed story about impossible love, rootlessness and longing.
- Cold War, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. Screenplay: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki. Musical arrangements: Marcin Masecki. Editing: Jarosław Kamiński. Cinematography: Łukasz Żal. Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza. Polish premiere: 8th June 2018