Film review | Cold War

Decorated Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski follows up the Oscar-winning Ida with this beguiling and subtle story of star-crossed lovers in post-war Europe

Wandering songstress: Joanna Kulig is Zula in Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow up to the award-winning Ida
Wandering songstress: Joanna Kulig is Zula in Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow up to the award-winning Ida

Amidst the ruins of post-war Poland, a musician, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), works to ply the Soviet propaganda machine by searching for the purest peasant voices to populate a touring choir of folk performers. But when he finds Zula (Joanna Kulig), she not only ends up being a suitable candidate for the job – the two fall deeply in love, and dream of escaping to the liberated West. But when freedom finally appears to be within reach, neither of them appear to be fully ready to grasp it.

Cold War is a nostalgic love letter to a time and place that appears to actively resist the cosmetic trappings of what we would traditionally associate with a nostalgia-friendly milieu, and thus crafts an ode of pained longing, right between the pained interstices of a not-too-distant European past.

An almost-equally decorated follow-up to Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida – taking home Best Director at Cannes last year, where Ida won the Polish director an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2015 – takes a similar tack to his sixth feature film insofar as its period trappings serve to foreground contemporary realities and concerns. It questions our liberal-capitalist status quo, but it does not do this through open lampooning or – by contrast – some kind of regress into a bucolic, flawless and almost always entirely imaginary vision of the past.

Rather, it creates an aesthetic of true yearning, one that suggests the solutions to happiness are not an equation but a quest to be undertaken again again, with infinite regress and no guarantee of success ever being at hand.

Allegedly a loose tribute to his own parents’ relationship, Pawlikowski’s decision to frame the narrative from the point of view of star-crossed lovers brings in at least an aura of the conventional that acts as something of a bridge for all the undercutting that is to follow. The story of our lovers edges towards pure melodrama – an emotional earnestness which surely stems from the autobiographical undercurrents that inform the script, and which threaten to tip the entire thing over into sentimental territory were it not for Pawlikowski’s assured directorial hand; an aesthetic sensitivity which extends to the modulation of the music and the shifting, by proxy, cross-European setting. The choice to once again present the film fully in black and white also contributes to leveling the experience while at the same time lending a poetic glow to the film (though this was emitted with a keener charm in Ida).

But what also keeps the sentimentality at bay is how Pawlikowski shows up the systematic – and cynical – nature of the production and dissemination of particular modes of cultural expression for the purposes of both propaganda and the reveling in pure, comforting kitsch for the sake of it.

Wiktor’s initial quest to discover a pure-and-pleasing expression of Polish folk singing leads him to the tragic love of his life; a journey that culminates in both of them ending up as rootless bohemians in a Europe experiencing flux. And all the while, their former company’s director (Borys Szyc) plods on in his mission, tweaking the performances in tandem with changing trends and mores, adding “zing” to these supposedly unblemished expressions of unspoilt exemplars of Polish folklore.

Some will be left puzzled by the couple’s ambivalence towards a latter-day self-imposed exile in Paris, which nonetheless clearly affords them freedoms that Poland would not have offered. Why not just stay there, you’d be tempted to ask, and quit their self-destructive yearning for a homeland bereft of the same liberties (both creative and sexual)?

Thankfully, Pawlikowski does not undertake to answer this complex question with any easy or pre-packaged answers. In fact, he does not attempt an answer at all: allowing the lingering yearning that comes in the wake of the question to do its stirring, subtle work.

In fact, this is very much a politically subtle film, disguised in the trappings of a finely-crafted melodrama which lays out comfy hooks for the audience to latch onto, at least at the outset. A beguiling journey into a Europe we thought we knew.

The verdict

A deceptively charming work of political subtlety disguised as a romantic melodrama, Cold War confirms Paweł Pawlikowski’s position as a oblique fighter against the status quo who goes against established cultural norms using methods of suggestion rather than aggression. Romantic and ironic in equal measure, it is a mature work that still undertakes to sweep you away.F