Cold War is my first experience with the work of director Paweł Pawlikowski. I need to see Ida, his film about a woman set to take her vows as a nun in early 1960s Poland, but I haven’t had time to catch up with it yet. After watching Cold War, I’ll be sure to make the time. His new picture is a painfully mournful tale of two star-crossed lovers whose own personalities and the realities of the world around them conspire to make the match an ill-advised one. Still, their passion burns bright, even when they are separated from each other for years.
Cold War is set in Poland over a period of a few decades during soviet rule of the country. Wiktor, a musical director for the state, is in search of talented singers for a program that will feature the rich folk-music tradition of the proletariat in his country. He discovers Zula – short for Zuzanna – and the two are drawn to each other almost immediately. We follow their tempestuous relationship throughout the 1950s and 60s as they work together and as they attempt to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.
Pawlikowski keeps his audience at arm’s length when it comes to the inner emotional state of his protagonists. We often don’t know exactly why they react to each other the way that they do, but perhaps neither do they. All they seem to know, on a fundamental level, is that they can’t live with each other, but living without each other is worse.
In addition to the beautiful simplicity of the story is Pawlikowski’s phenomenal visual style. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal shot the film in stark, gorgeous black-and-white photography. It’s evocative of photographs and movies created during the period in which the film is set. Likewise, Pawlikowski frames the picture in Academy ratio (4:3), like many films of that time. It adds to the authenticity of Cold War, but it also comments on the psychological state of the characters. They feel hemmed in by their circumstances, and the smaller, square framing correlates to this sentiment.
We’re in the midst of some great art dealing with the Cold War period right now. Two examples that come instantly to mind are the just concluded television series The Americans, and The Death of Stalin, a hilarious, biting satire about the power struggle that ensued at the Kremlin when the General Secretary of the Communist Party passed away. Add Cold War to the list. In addition to faithfully re-creating that time and place, it adds a very human element of two lovers who struggle, and often fail, to express their feelings for each other in constructive ways.