Cold War Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - Mark Ker­mode Ob­server

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.

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