Cold War (CIFF 2018)

review by Kate Blair

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s newest film, Cold War, is a haunting love story set against the backdrop of the Soviet-occupied Poland. As with his last feature, Ida, Pawlikowski uses academy ratio that emphasizes the height of the frame. As a result, characters tend to be framed on the lower part of the screen, while the sky looms above them. Also like Ida, Cold War is shot in black and white. The unusual framing contributes to a dreamy tone that allows the film to make great leaps in time and space and take on the tenor of metaphor.

In the film, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are lovers caught in the throes of history. Though they share a strong bond, they spend most of their lives apart, married and coupled with other partners in the interim. They chase one another from Poland to France to Yugoslavia and back again, never completely content together but utterly lost when separated. Kulig and Kot have a chemistry and a hip sensibility that brings to mind the classic pairing of Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou. They are a pleasure to watch, by turns passionate, witty, and devastating. The stilted trajectory of their relationship also brings to mind the doomed romance in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

The two meet during an audition, where Zula hopes to become part of a traveling show that will highlight Polish folk music. Wiktor is a classically-trained pianist and one of the show’s producers. The film brilliantly uses music to explore the nature of cultural identity and how cultural ideas are exchanged and evolve, often in problematic ways. After the show achieves initial success, the producers are encouraged by the powers that be to include messaging about the Soviet Union, and their show becomes propaganda.

Throughout the film, one song in particular undergoes an evolution as it travels around Europe and is adapted for each new environment. In the beginning of the film, Wiktor records a street musician singing a folk song. He later arranges this song for a chorus. In Paris, it becomes a jazzy night club ballad, translated into French and back into Polish again. The tune becomes totally divorced from its original context, adapted and transposed to resonate in new climates and markets.

Through the musical iterations as well as the journeys that inspire them, the film poses complex questions about national identity and what happens to a nation displaced, first by the Nazi regime, then by Stalinism. What results is a nation of rootless citizens who are never at home in one place, with implications that reverberate through history, culture, and interpersonal relationships. With its truly devastating love story, Cold War is a complex and nuanced film that no doubt rewards multiple viewings. It is highly recommended.

Screened as part of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival