The clamorous, deafening sound of a bagpipe that opens Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War feels like a response to his previous film, the art-house phenomenon Ida. With its quiet, meditative aesthetic, Ida demands to be taken in slowly. In his book Transcendental Style in Cinema, Paul Schrader posits the style as essentially “a withholding device” — you hold on a shot until there’s finally a release. Schrader cites Ida as a prime example of that release. The film’s patient, still shots build to a surge of movement in the final frame. This cathartic liberation feels like a secret that the filmmaker has been keeping under the wraps the whole time.
Though Pawlikowski has not drastically changed his style since Ida, the beginning of Cold War may jolt one out of their expectations. What ensues is a glorious portrait of a dysfunctional love affair set against the backdrop of the Cold War. The film spans multiple years and countries, beginning and ending in Poland and passing through Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia. With its exquisitely-composed boxy shots, the film could be a postcard series from a Communist Tour of Europe. And yet, the cinematography does not feel overly-staged or mannered. Rather, simple set-ups give way to the precise action and piercing performances of the two leads.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor and pianist, meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) while traveling the Polish countryside, recruiting singers for a folk choir. The connection is instant. Unlike many of the other folk singers, when Zula sings, she doesn’t blank in the face. She sings every word with unaffected passion and gusto. The rumour is that she murdered her father. When Wiktor asks her about it, she replies calmy by saying: “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference.”
Their love affair begins, but living under a communist regime quells any honest expression of emotion. Their love is relegated to pastures and the liminal spaces between train cars as they travel from one show to the next. It is music that holds them together. It is simultaneously their binding agent and a conduit for expressing their mutual devotion. When the pressures to align music with State propaganda conflict with Wiktor’s artistic practice, he decides to leave the country and implores Zula to join him. But, for some reason that it is never made explicitly clear, Zula stays. They reunite in different cities as she travels with the folk ensemble. And as the story moves forward, there is a distinct progression in the music they sing together. The folk classic “Dwa serduszka” (Two Little Hearts) that Zula sings in her audition for the ensemble is turned into a stirring choir piece sung under a flag banner of Stalin, then it is stripped down and given a jazz twist and, lastly, it’s translated into french by Wiktor’s stony lover cum poetess. This morphing song tracks their tumultuous and resilient love affair. The instrumentation might change, but the lyrics stay the same.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski offers little exposition, which leaves the audience to gather any and all clues. Indeed, the excess of plot and character details are stripped away so as to give way to their excessive emotions. Yet, it does not feel like this information is being withheld from the audience but merely deemed superfluous. At times, it’s slightly frustrating to feel like the details of Wiktor and Zula’s lives might inform their torrid affair. But it seems fitting that, under a Totalitarian regime in which truths are bent, lies are spun and dissidents are exiled, facts are beside the point. In this way, Cold War is a political melodrama in which the characters fight against totalitarianism in their perseverance to stay together.
Pawlikowski avoids the usual pitfalls of representing totalitarianism. He does not show the steely-eyed officials as evil or ignorant. And the mesmerizing dance and choir scenes do not feel wooden or austere. They are as seductive as they are designed to be, performing the regressive nostalgia that the regime dictates. Cold War is not afraid to inspire the audience with propaganda.
Sarah Foulkes (@sarahfowow) is a critic based in Montreal, Quebec. She is a recent graduate from McGill University in Cultural Studies and hopes to begin her Masters in the fall.