After 5 years of absence, Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the big screens with the beautiful ‘Cold War’. The film takes place in post-WW2 Poland under the Soviet regime and is loosely inspired by the relationship between the director’s parents. The two, according to Pawlowski, is “the most interesting dramatic characters I’ve ever come across … both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster”. An ambitious pianist and composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are putting together a big band ensemble ‘Mazurek’ out of talented young people from the rural areas. They are gathering them to perform traditional Polish folk songs and dances. One of the candidates, mysterious Zula (Joanna Kulig) catches Wiktor’s eye. Zula is ambitious, cunning, and beautiful which makes it easy for her to get what she wants from life. The central characters engage in a passionate life-long romance with various ups and downs, break-ups and come-backs, journeys and returns.
Although the plot might sound like a cliché the film is a true masterpiece. The story is told with earnest attention to details, with subtle moments and gestures, scenes full of emotions and passion. Although the film is centred around the relationship of Wiktor and Zula, the overall theme is freedom in divided Europe. After the war Poland was devastated by the Nazi and Soviet armies which used the land as their battlefield. The authoritarian government tries to gain favour in the rural areas by investing in folk culture and lifestyle. In return, Wiktor has to promote the Soviet government although this clashes with his artistic vision. Zula has no freedom to be with whoever she wants as she has escaped prison by being a minister’s favourite. When a chance comes Wiktor plans an escape beyond the iron wall but Zula hesitates. The life of a foreigner has also its limitations. The two have to fit into the expectations of the elite and live with a feeling of being constantly at someone’s mercy. They both struggle to be happy as their expectations clash with the harsh reality.
This might seem like a dense story, the film tells the story with simplicity, small detail and grace. Between many beautiful musical scores, it is the silence that speaks the loudest. The lines are modest, put together with care but with lightness and purest realism. The film was shot, as was its predecessor Ida, in an Academic ratio which is a nod to the polish cinema of the post-war era. The black and white cinematography by Lukasz Zal is just breath-taking. Each frame is a masterpiece, simple yet full of miniature detail, intimate gestures and pure passion. As a Pole, I have to say that the costume and set design are not only beautiful but also authentic (my heart melted when I saw a glass that looked exactly like my granddad’s). One hardly wants to blink in order not to miss a second of it.
Lastly, the performances left me speechless. Although I did not know Kulig before, the film stars many of Poland’s best actors who even in the smallest roles give the performances of their lives. Kulig and Kot must have spent a lot of time together as their characters have such a beautiful chemistry that incredibly genuine. Despite many praises that Kulig got, I believe that it was Kot that carried most of the weight of the film and did so with all his talent.
Not in vain did Pawlikowski get best director award at the Cannes festival and after watching this film I cannot compare it to anything else that came out this year as all seem inferior.