Glass reviews Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War – the geopolitical is personal

–You and me, we’re like America and Russia
We’re always keeping score
We’re always balancing the power
And that can get to be a cold, cold war

Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue Motel Room’

WITH its drawn-out tensions and periodic flash-points of conflict, the Cold War has obvious appeal as a romantic metaphor. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film, it is the backdrop to the protagonists’ lives and a reality they cannot escape: the geopolitical is personal. 

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig as Wiktor and Zula

Beginning in rural Poland in 1948, Cold War charts the relationship between gifted musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and lively student Zula (Joanna Kulig) as they get together, break up, cross borders, make a living and struggle to make a life over a period of 20 years or so. As the Iron Curtain falls, threatening the integrity of Wiktor’s folk music troupe of which Zula is the star performer, painful questions of national and ideological loyalties must be confronted. But it’s not just external obstacles that threaten Wiktor and Zula’s happiness: she is wild and capricious, with a possibility violent past, while Wiktor is a taciturn intellectual several years her senior. Can this match really survive the tumult of post-war Europe?

Romances of this scale are often painted on a large canvas — a TV box-set, say, or long-form cinema. Hermann and Clarissa, the on-again, off-again protagonists of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat saga, come to mind, or Jesse and Céline of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. These leisurely formats allow the relationships space to breathe and to be conveyed in all their naturalism and nuance. In Cold War, on the other hand, Pawlikowski attempts to condense a truly epic love story (inspired by the experience of his parents) into a rather lean feature film. 

It’s a bold ambition that necessitates a daringly elliptical structure. Pawlikowski has distilled the couple’s journey to what he considers its essence, with any scrap of fat judiciously trimmed. Title cards signpost us through time and space — late 1940s Poland, 1950s Paris, 1960s Yugoslavia — and we are left with the task of filling in the gaps. Knowing just how much information to withhold from the audience without leaving them feeling lost was, in the director’s words, ‘a high-wire act’, and the film lives or dies by it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the narrative episodes feel just that touch too slight. When we are unexpectedly reunited with Wiktor in a prison, his head shaved and his fate uncertain, we have only just begun to process our emotional response when the plot whizzes on — another time, another place. But for the most part, Pawlikowski’s structural gamble pays off, thanks to the intelligence of the script, the clarity of the images and the assured performances of Kot and (especially) Kulig.

 Joanna Kulig as Wiktor and Zula

There are obvious stylistic similarities to Pawlikowsi’s previous film Ida here — Lukasz Zal’s gorgeous black and white cinematography, the non-standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the lyrical jazz score. But Cold War is not a mere imitation of its Oscar-winning predecessor. The spiritual stillness of Ida has been replaced by a more exuberant, dynamic style, better suited to a film full of dance, travel and romance.

The scenes set in 1950s Paris allow Pawlikowski to embrace the cool glamour of this cultural golden age — moody bars, smoke-filled jazz clubs, dazzling formal soirées. We’ve seen these images many times before, but here they are tightly woven into Pawlikowski’s economical storytelling and manage not to fall into cliché. Demonstrating an impressive visual range, the film ends a million miles away from these bright lights, a desolate rural landscape providing the setting for a conclusion of sorts and evoking the quiet interiority of Bergman and Tarkovsky.  

Despite its universal acclaim elsewhere, in Poland Ida raised the hackles of nationalists outraged by the suggestion that Poles had any involvement in Nazi war crimes. Poland is now governed by the Law and Justice Party that led that charge, but Cold War has avoided government opprobrium and proven a commercial hit. It’s not hard to see why: though there is plenty of politics in Cold War, it plays a supporting role to the central romance. Viewers of all ideological inclinations can choose to focus on the universal rather than the specific, seeing their own struggles reflected in a story of love against the odds. 

In this way, the film is cleverly positioned between art-house and crowd-pleaser, broadening Pawlikowski’s appeal and supplying yet more evidence that he is among the most important directors working today.

by Jackson Caines

Cold War can be seen across London here

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