The film opens with a cacophony of folk. It’s Poland, 1949, and a trio are travelling the country recording traditional folk, folk of the peasants. The trio, Wiktor (Kot), Kaczmarek (Szyc) and Irena (Kulesza), set up a training school of arts in an old manner house where ‘only the best of the best will make it.’ Their intent is to create their own dancing trope, celebrating Poland and its traditions, to ensure that ‘no more will the talents of the People go to waste.’ Auditions soon follow, which is when Wiktor meets Zula (Kulig) for the first time. She intrigues him. In time a love affair begins, that stop and starts for more than a decade in multiple countries and with multiple obstacles; not least themselves.
With a running time of 83 minutes, Cold War is the epitome of economic storytelling at its greatest. In that space of time Pawlikowski manages to tell a passionate epic of grandiose scale. Routed in the personal, the leads are named after his parents with the film itself being loosely inspired by their lives, this is a story that aches, lives and breathes. The fact it is shot in black and white allows for it to feel like a throwback to the stories of cinemas past, at one point it felt like a companion piece to Casablanca, whilst being grounded in the traditions of post war Poland – for better and for worse. Irene leaves the group early on, after government intervention sees them becoming ‘a living calling card for our Fatherland.’ She is swiftly forgotten. The nature of the state continues to be threat that impedes on Wiktor and Zula’s relationship, as if love and politics are in a constant and perilous state collaborative collision of maximum destruction.
The film is essentially an array of tableaux, a scene ends as does that year and that chapter of their lives. Nearly all open with their return to each other, as if they can never be apart. Such is their draw to each other, an innate pull from one heart to the other. Intrinsic happiness of the highest order soon follows, as does sadness; lady destiny doing all she can to evoke maximum cruelty. The lovers are helpless at the hands of fate. Or are they? The film takes the storytelling approach of showing not telling, often with omission. Many things are left untold, deemed not needed or necessary, forcing us to make our own conclusions. We are never told how Wiktor and Zula rediscover each other each time, they just do. It has a mythical effect, as if they are in possession of a compass that will always let one locate the other. The end result is a film that causes the viewer to feel an ache of sorts, empathetic ache for this tumultuous love affair.
The score warrants much attention. Gradually shifting from folk to jazz, with late Western additions in the form of Billie Holiday’s ‘The Man I Love’ and Bill Haley & His Comets Rock Around The Clock’ the music adds to the wistfulness, the yearning and the passion. Both Kulig and Kot bring these songs to life, cementing and soundtracking their intense and beguiling love.
In the face of the impossible they are able to find moments of the greatest bliss with each other. Moments that end when borders, both literal and emotional, consistently force them apart. A stunning, haunting modern classic in the making.
Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski
Scr: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar.
Prd: Ewa Puszczynska, Tanya Seghatchian
DOP: Lukasz Zal
Music: Marcin Masecki
Run time: 83 minutes
Cold War is in UK cinemas from August 31st.