Will audiences ever tire of silly love songs? A handful of ditties replay throughout Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War and each reprisal of a tune breaks one’s heart into pieces. Pawlikowski, who won a well-deserved Best Director prize at Cannes last year and just scored a Best Director Oscar nomination for the film, delivers a bittersweet love story both epic and intimate as he charts the ups and downs of one relationship with the chaos of post-war Europe.
Music sets the stage for a sweeping romance with a politically charged backdrop that sees a nation’s history play out in the tumultuous relationship of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Music brings them together and it rips them apart as the tenor of their relationship changes year by year and the tunes change in their style and meaning with each shift in the political landscape. The love songs find something that transcends language as they evoke old feelings with each performance and build relationships between the viewers and the characters with each song.
Pawlikowski draws from a story close to his heart as the relationship of Wiktor and Zula loosely mirrors the stormy on-again/off-again romance of his parents, for whom the lovers are named. Wiktor and Zula from the real world both died in 1989 with their love story coming to an end just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Pawlikowski similarly tells their story of Wiktor and Zula in movieland through several significant chapters of history, each one marked by political divisions reflected in the rifts between the lovers.
They first meet in Poland, 1949 when Wiktor is spearheading auditions for the Mazurek folk ensemble alongside a fellow musical ethnographer, Irena (Ida’s Agata Kulesza). Wiktor worries that nothing original or inspiring is to be found in the music of the countryside. These peasants have been through hell and their songs are bound to be ones of sorrow. Wiktor is a man of jazz, a music aficionado who knows the classics but is fuelled by the propulsive, sexy beats of contemporary American music. (Note the riffs on George Gershwin and the like.) His fondness for progressive music inspires him to take a chance on Zula, who doesn’t make much of an impression on Irena during her audition—and, frankly, gives herself away by teaming up with a homely girl with a far better grasp for the traditional cadence of stuffy old Polish music.
The joie de vivre that Zula inflects in her song, however, provides the right tone for Wiktor’s vision. He seeks to bring to life music that reflects Polish identity and character, but delivered in a way that inspires the masses to look to the future. His rehearsals with Zula hone her talent and reveal more about this mysterious woman with a saucy bark and a sultry voice. They eventually lead the Mazurek chorus in a stately and folkish recital of “Two Hearts,” a traditional song of unhappiness and selfless devotion that serves as Cold War’s theme. Zula, now a honed talent(ish), proves a strong presence as Wiktor conducts her from afar and hears her smoky voice cutting through the plain Janes of the ensemble.
One doesn’t need a Master’s Degree is music history to catch all the riches on the screen and soundtrack, but it probably helps, and this enthrallingly, intoxicatingly beautiful film both demands and rewards repeating viewings. The songs that Zula and Wiktor perform individually are often marked by influences outside their borders, like the inspiration of American music that flourished and arrived with the changes wrought by war. In the Mazurek chorus, meanwhile, the music wrestles with the propagandistic power of art, something to which Irena fiercely objects while Wiktor remains cowardly ambivalent. The musicians struggle with their desire to make a living with their passions with the cost of selling a lie. Savour the notes of each song again and again and the music reveals new layers and meanings with each refrain.
Kulig, who previously appeared in Pawlikowski’s Ida and The Woman in the Fifth, is sensationally good as Zula. The film ultimately belongs to her as Cold War witnesses Zula’s struggle to become a star with her own voice as Poland and its people wrestle with the vicissitudes of history. (If there’s one fault to be raised against the film, it’s simply that Kulig is far more magnetic a screen presence than her co-star.) Zula is a hot mess, fueled by love, anger, regret, and melancholy as she struts her stuff in one gig after another, shifting gears to perform “Two Hearts” as a sultry jazz number or on a French record to make a buck. With each fluctuation, each act of selling out, Zula loses a piece of her heart. Zula is both Jackson Maine and Ally Campana for the price of one. In a way, Cold War is the arthouse sibling of A Star is Born with its heartbreaking portrait of two lovers on the music scene striving for the future while weighted down by the past.
Pawlikowski is a master when it comes to composition and economical storytelling, and there’s a lot packed into each of Cold War’s monochromatic Academy ratio frames. The Oscar-nominated cinematography by Lukasz Zal dazzles with its precise and austere compositions that unfold this bittersweet romance in a cold and barren world in which love struggles to thrive. Alternatively sweet and sorrowful, Cold War is a devastating, heartbreaking masterpiece.