The title of Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film has a double meaning. Cold War alludes to both the political tension between East and West in the decades after WWII, and to the passionate, on-off love affair between two musical Poles, a battle of love and ideology that takes place on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Following Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, it’s another highly accomplished film, a romantic drama that’s both intimate and epic, sumptuously shot in black and white and seductively carried along by its diegetic music.
Pianist and composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) meet in the Polish provinces in 1949, when he is researching and casting for a celebration of local folk music. He’s educated and refined, she from the wrong side of the tracks with a murky past and a gorgeous voice. She becomes his star, and his lover.
But it’s not long before the Stalinist regime appropriates their music for propaganda purposes. Wiktor starts to feel itchy for the West, Zula wishes to remain. Defection divides them. And the film follows them – through the Fifties, from Warsaw to East Berlin, Yugoslavia to Paris and back to Poland, from folk to jazz to pop, together and apart.
While the film isn’t overtly political, the characters serve the director’s interest in what it means to be Polish. “In Poland you were a man,” Zula tells Wiktor in Paris. “You’re different here.”
Kulig, seen briefly as a club singer in Ida, now moves sensationally to centre stage. Her Zula is sultry, strong-willed, vital; when she transforms herself into a Parisian chanteuse, it’s electrifying. It’s a pity that opposite her Kot overdoes Wiktor’s introversion; the relationship and the film need more temperature from him.
Nevertheless, whenever Kulig is on screen, or Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal are framing their smoky, evocative compositions, this feels like cinematic gold.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald