Cold War is a Masterpiece

Cold War (2018)
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Opus Films, 85 minutes, R (sexuality, brief nudity, language)
Polish with subtitles

We all know the story of doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet, right? How would that tale look if identity, ambition, and politics drove a wedge between them instead of their respective families? That's roughly the setup of Cold War, but anyone who reduces this film to its narrative is floating on the surface of a very deep sea. This is not a good film, it is a great one.

Cold War is set in its namesake time period, that post-World War II period which the United Sates and the Soviet Union engaged in an ideological contest for global supremacy. From their bipolar perspectives, the rest of the world's nations were client states and pawns. Poland was such a land. It was planted behind the Iron Curtain under the aegis of the Soviet Union. Though the Polish people have a long history, Poland's very borders were radically altered by the war. The film opens in 1947, when Wiktor Warshi (Tomasz Kot) and his partner Irena are field workers collecting traditional songs and dances. They have been tasked with launching a traveling showcase of costumed Polish folk culture performed by young people. Such shows were far more than Fame without the pop sheen. Rediscovering folk traditions was part and parcel of national identity creation in lands once under the boot heel of Nazi domination.

Poland certainly needed a boost, as it was a grim place for many years after the war.  Director Paweł Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal show this by filming in black and white. There are languorous establishing shots of vast snowy fields and skies whose leadenness swallows the landscape. Even town streets and concert halls are steeped in austerity and drear. The effect is unexpectedly eye catching, as if John Singer Sargent had layered the countryside with shades of white upon white and gray upon gray.

We learn that Wiktor is a skilled pianist, composer, and conductor, but the music that makes his heart sing loudest is the physical and emotional allure of Zuzanna "Zula Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), an aspirant for Wiktor's folk spectacle. Their affair is complicated by their age differential, politics, circumstance, and passion of the most reckless kind—the sort that must play out, the costs be damned. Theirs is a steamy ardor that's equal part pleasure and pain that transcends safety, marital status, and ideology. Cold War spans 15 years and takes place in Poland, Berlin, Paris, and Yugoslavia. In keeping with the spare exteriors of the film, Pawlikowski uses screen wipes to shift from one time period or location to the next, and he uses vignettes within each that we recognize as metaphors for what has transpired in the intervening years. Does it matter that Wiktor walks away from communist Poland* to seek artistic freedom in the West, but Zula stays behind? Borders are obstacles, but they are not insurmountable ones.

Cold War is also a film about identity. National histories can be invented, but what of the traditions, culture, language, and collective memories embedded within the psyche? Does crossing a border make one French, or does it make one not French and not Polish– a vagabond in purgatory? Those who have studied the Cold War will recognize that the film's sense of personal ambiguity and incompleteness mirrors the geopolitical uncertainties of the era.

The overall stillness of Cold War is akin to black and white photos that come to life but cannot break the frames that contain them. In effect, Cold War is and isn't a love story. Think of it as a tone poem the likes of which Wiktor conducts but cannot resolve. Like a still photo or a musical movement connected episodically to an opera, Wiktor and Zula are part of bigger stories they intuit but cannot command. The namesake Cold War ultimately collapsed from its own weight and contradictions and so must Wiktor and Zula.

This is indeed a Polish Romeo and Juliet, but seldom has it been staged so gloriously. Joanna Kulig is a marvel. She is 36, but her natural plasticity and unique features allow her to be convincing as both a precocious and dangerous adolescent as well as a mature and voluptuous adult. Kot impresses in a less direct way. His very resignation is powerful in its passivity, an innervating negation if you will. Above them both stands Pawlikowski's masterful direction. I suspect that film students will be studying this film for many years to come.

Rob Weir

* World War II ended with the Allies liberating Europe from west to east and the Russians from east to west. The city of Berlin was divided into four zones. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin and the Russian zone East Berlin. In 1961, the Russians and East Germans built the Berlin Wall that prevented movement between East and West Berlin. Prior to this, it was dangerous but possible to flee communist East Berlin simply by walking through a checkpoint.

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