Cold War Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
Paweł Pawlikowski won the best director award at Cannes in May for this sweepingly intimate love story about a starcrossed couple falling together and apart, through the iron curtain of postwar Europe. It is inspired by (and dedicated to) his parents, whom Pawlikowski has described as “the most interesting dramatic characters I’ve ever come across … both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster”.
Yet while screen lovers Wiktor and Zula share names and character traits with the film-maker’s mother and father, their individual narratives are fictional and allusive, taking us from the countryside of Poland to the streets of East Berlin, from Paris to Yugoslavia, over 15 turbulent years – crossing boundaries that are musical, geographical, political and ultimately existential. The result is a swooning, searing Polish-BritishFrench co-production that unexpectedly put me in mind of Casablanca or La La Land as reimagined by Andrzej Wajda or Agnieszka Holland – a reminder of the fundamental things that apply, as time goes by.
We open in rural Poland, 1949, where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, pictured) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are recording folk songs – mournful tales of love, drink and hardship, raw and elemental. Under the banner of the “Mazurek ensemble” (inspired by the real-life Mazowsze troupe), they audition musicians and dancers to showcase the authentic sounds of Poland, ensuring that “No more will the art of the people go to waste!”
Into these auditions comes Zula (Joanna Kulig, pictured), an enigmatic young woman posing as a village girl who significantly performs not a Polish mountain tune but a song learned from a Russian movie. Irena detects “a bit of a con” but Wiktor is smitten by Zula, who is whispered to have killed her father. Soon Zula is one of the stars of Mazurek, unfazed by the authorities’ co-opting demands that they sing the praises of Stalin and agricultural reform. When Wiktor spies a chance to defect during a 1952 engagement in East Berlin, he begs Zula to come with him. But are her pragmatic priorities in sync with his western-leaning dreams?
Kulig delivers a star-making performance of astonishing range. Before our eyes we see Zula transform from not-so-innocent young woman to sultry jazz singer and raddled showgirl; from faux “pure Polish” belle to smoky Parisian chanteuse; from victim to victor and back again.
Cold War is a dark musical full of silences and ellipses. It’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps in the narrative, and to divine the true feelings that so often remain unspoken. Appropriately, it left me speechless.