“I was with the woman of my life.”
Cold War is a film from another time. It exists to be projected in a dark room, where people lean forward in rapt attention, perhaps smoking a cigarette or sipping on a drink. Afterward, they will go to a local bar, or walk beside the sienne, and discuss it feverishly and at length. Arguments will crop up, some will get defensive, and then that will be the end of the night. The film will live on in their minds and eyes, one day to be discovered anew by a young generation, one that will yearn for a time when movies like this got made. Watching Cold War today feels like watching a classic be born.
Not just any classic, though. There are, of course, many classics debuting every day; the canon is ever expanding, ever molding. Cold War, the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski (of the Oscar-winning Ida), is a classic of the art house variety, and the kind of movie-making akin to Ivan’s Childhood, La dolce vita, The Ascent, and La notte. It contains rapturous images that sear themselves into the brain and linger long after the film moves on. One particular sequence at the ruins of a chapel contained such stark beauty that my breath hitched in surprise. Who needs plot when you have image? Who needs dialogue when you have mood?
There is, however, a plot in Cold War and it’s a timeless one. Beginning in Poland in 1959 and ending a decade later, Cold War follows Zula (an electric Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, all lingering stares and sensuous energy) as they fall in love within a world that can’t help but tear them apart. Wiktor, a composer and accomplished pianist, is traveling the Polish countryside in hopes of capturing what he and his partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) call “traditional folk music”. In tow is a chatty political emissary, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), who seems to embody the world they are fighting against. Wiktor and Irena want to use this music to escape the ingenuity of a Stalin-occupied Poland; Kaczmarek wants to use said music to further support it. Of course, without Kaczmarek, there is no funding, and so Irena and Wiktor work with him. Their failure is an inevitability.
Ultimately, the best musicians are invited to a boarding house of sorts, where they are rallied and encouraged to compete amongst themselves for spots in a traveling musical group (based on real-life Polish troupe, Mazowsze). Only the best of the best will stay, states Kaczmarek. “No more will the talents of the people go to waste!” Wiktor and Irena can only stare on in distaste as the crowd grows anxious. One of such applicants is Zula (Kulig), who quickly sparks the attention of Wiktor during her audition — after performing a duet with a fellow singer, she sticks around to deliver a solo, and insists on singing the chorus even after Irena calls time. Kulig, a Pawlikowski regular, is an extraordinary performer, her eyes burning through the screen at every turn. As Zula, she becomes a woman desperate to find her way within a world that cannot help but commodify her. Wiktor is immediately taken with her, as are we, and so the romance begins. If only life were that simple.
There are many ellipsis’s in Cold War, time marching on at a brutally brisk pace. Soon after auditions are complete, the troupe gives their first performance. Afterward, the arrival of a government emissary proves that Irena and Wiktor’s plight was all for naught. They are instructed to craft songs with a more political edge, “land reform and world peace, and the threats to it”. Irena protests, Kaczmarek loves it, and Wiktor remains silent. His dark eyes convey what we already know. The world is, ultimately, inescapable.
Pawlikowski, along with cinematographer Łukasz Żal, continue on in the tradition of Ida, shooting their subjects at the bottom half of the frame with the empty space towering over them. It is a beautiful and tragic trick, as if the world is always looming, pushing down on their shoulders. As Cold War crosses time and space, moving from Poland to Paris and back again, Wiktor and Zula continue to be tethered to one another. After briefly reuniting following a time apart, Wiktor lays in bed with his current lover. “Have you been whoring?” she asks, lacking jealousy. He says no: “I was with the woman of my life.”
In Wiktor and Zula, Pawlikowski crafts a dynamic as old as the Earth. The world keeps tearing them apart and yet they scratch and crawl their way back to each other, consequences be damned. As the years pass, Kulig and Kot expertly portray the weathering on the lovers’s faces. Kulig, in particular, seems to lose some of her lightness with each passing frame, her steps heavier, her eyes darker. Kot’s deterioration is less consistent, but when it inevitably arrives, his transition is equally startling. As they fall down and get up, only to be knocked down further, we’re left wondering: Why, given everything, do they continue to fight? It is one of life’s unanswerable questions. Their lives would surely be easier without each other. But what do you do with a life that is empty?
And so is Cold War, a cinematic triumph that, like Wiktor and Zula, is destined to survive the harshest of trials. Full of timeless images and emotional austerity, it seems to have arrived in 2018 as a ghost, a small, elegant gem unearthed from somewhere long lost. It is present and past, and everywhere in between. It is also, it must be mentioned, a brief 88 minutes long. So savor them, mull them over, and then do it all over again. There is so much beauty to be found.