Director Paweł Pawlikowski
Director Paweł Pawlikowski with actress Joanna Kulig
Pawlikowski with actor Tomasz Kot, actress Joanna Kulig (left), and actor Borys Szyc (right)
COLD WAR (Zimna wojna) B+
Poland France Great Britain (90 mi) 2018 d: Pawel Pawlikowski
Through this world, you will enter a world of music, song, and dance.
―Irena (Agata Kulesza)
Paweł Pawlikowski pays tribute to his parent’s generation (actually dedicating this film to his parents) in this follow-up to the Oscar-winning 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida, returning once again to Poland with a curiously updated Dr. Zhivago-style epic romance set against the grim backdrop of Europe after WWII, shot in crisp black and white by Łukasz Żal, returning to the 4:3 aspect ratio showing a self-contained world, spanning more than a decade from the late 40’s to the early 60’s, where it’s something of a romanticized love letter to surviving through bleak times, using an atypical style, as this is at heart an unconventional song and dance musical, moving from folk songs to free-form jazz. Props must go out to musician Marcin Masecki for all the jazz and song arrangements, and dance choreographer Stefano Terrazzino, aided by Grzegorz Cherubiński, Anna Pas, and Piotr Zalipski for the singlemost show-stopping number of the film, but the story is loosely based on the Mazowsze Dance Group, a Polish Folk Song and Dance Ensemble (The History of Mazowsze - Our history - State Folk Group of Song and ...) that still exists today. Winner of the Best Director award at Cannes this year, the story is set in the ruins of post-war Poland, following the exploits of a brooding pianist/composer named Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a sophisticated and educated man from the city, and a wild singer/dancer called Zula (Joanna Kulig), posing as a peasant girl from the countryside, with notably different backgrounds and temperaments, yet they are fatally attracted to one another despite character differences, regional borders and political boundaries, each caught in different countries in the 1950’s, traveling through Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris, separated by time and the unfortunate twists of fate, yet somehow they maintain what amounts to a mismatched love affair, as passionate as it is destructive. Described as “an impossible love story in impossible times,” the real Wiktor and Zula (the actual names of the director’s parents) died in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, having spent the previous forty years together on and off, breaking up, and then chasing after each other on both sides of the Iron Curtain. According to the director, “They were both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a neverending disaster.”
At the outset, Wiktor and Irena (Agata Kulesza from IDA) are musical collaborators scouring the countrysides and recording folk songs, eventually auditioning singers and dancers for a musical group called the Mazurek ensemble (inspired by the Mazowsze troupe) that showcase the authentic sounds of Poland, declaring “No more will the art of the people go to waste!” There is something of a playful beginning, with the free-spirited Zula pretending to be a village girl, singing a harmonized duet with another girl she just met while standing in line, but she stands out (though Irena notes the other girl has perfect pitch), with Wiktor asking her to sing a solo, but instead of performing a Polish mountain tune she surprisingly sings a Russian song, claiming she learned it from a traveling Russian movie. While Irena detects a con job, Wiktor sees “something else,” growing fascinated by her talent and vibrant energy, asking at one point whether the rumors are true that she was jailed for killing her father, and without missing a beat she blurts out, “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference.” With that she becomes the star of the show, and the muse of Wiktor, who falls madly in love, though as extroverted as she is, he’s equally as introverted. It’s a match made in heaven, as Zula couldn’t be more captivating, on stage and off, and both are enthralled with what the other can offer them. The simplistic beauty of their music begins to sound distinctively Slavic, including one of their standard folk numbers, Mazowsze 'Dwa serduszka'The Little Hearts - YouTube (2:39), which quickly transitions into a tribute to Stalin, Zimna Wojna - Dwa serduszka (Two Hearts - Mazowsze ... - YouTube (3:00), where their troupe is little more than a propaganda tool, with party hack Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) ordering Zula to spy on Wiktor, who barely cares at all, where the winds of change costs Irena her job, as she refuses to capitulate, while Wiktor grows desperately moody and distraught, feeling like a caged animal needing to escape the tightening grip of Stalinism (which banned the playing of jazz music), where they dream of escaping to the creative freedom of the West. For Zula, on the other hand, Communism is just fine, as she’s never had it so good, traveling to all the Eastern bloc countries as the star of the show, receiving tributes and plenty of adulation. But when they have a performance in East Berlin in 1952, Wiktor spots an opening and grabs the chance, begging Zula to come with him, where curiously enough before the Wall, you could simply walk across the checkpoint, but it is not to be.
From the dance halls in Poland and Germany to the smoke-filled jazz clubs of Paris and the L’Eclipse nightclub, Wiktor leads a small jazz combo, living in a tiny loft apartment earning a living doing what he loves best, composing music for films, taking refuge in his art, matching the mindset and perspective of the film, which almost makes him forget the “woman of his life” that he left behind, where the chill of loneliness punctuates his every note. While there are significant time jumps, years later when Zula suddenly arrives out of nowhere to Paris, free as a bird, it reignites a whirlwind relationship, putting Zula onstage as a sultry jazz singer, singing a range of songs that adds to her risqué persona as a femme fatale star wherever she goes, even recording a record together, though she quickly gets bored in Paris, drinking heavily, beautifully expressed in what is the scene of the film which explodes with energy and passion, dancing to Bill Haley & the Comets signature song Rock Around the Clock, Cold War di Pawel Pawlikowski | CLIP 1 - YouTube (1:49), spontaneous like Anna Karina in early Godard films, literally erupting with a volcanic force, allowing her fiery disposition a sensuous release, never more liberated anywhere else in the film. Impulsive, jealous, and oftentimes malicious, Zula falls into that Western trap of leading a life of decadence and vulgarity, developing an acidic tongue, going toe to toe with anyone that stands in her way, one of whom happens to be Jeanne Balibar in a cameo appearance, a poet of some repute who writes the words to several songs and may be sleeping with her guy, putting her on notice, aggressively giving her a put-down that’s utterly priceless before walking away, preening like a peacock, openly flirting with other men in front of Wiktor, adding to her erotic allure. French film director Cédric Kahn also has a cameo appearance, playing a film director named Michel, with Wiktor filling him in on Zula’s rise to fame, exaggerating profusely, making her seem more exotic, like a Polish Josephine Baker, which only makes her hate him more, growing annoyed with him. With Paris losing its luster, it makes it easier spitting him out of her life as she returns to Poland, more than a little homesick. Of course, Wiktor aches with regret, lost in the misery of a tortured psyche, becoming a shadow of himself, but willing to follow her to the ends of the earth, which means returning to Poland, no matter the consequences, where he pays heavily for his defection, jailed and having to denounce himself for committing a crime. Despite the overt expressiveness of the many song and dance routines, this is very much an interior film, one that probes the mind of the artist/creator, who becomes a tragic, wounded soul in pursuit of love, closing the film exactly where it began, in a small, dilapidated church on the side of the road, the place where dreams were born.