Full-bodied and full-spirited, Cold War is an unbelievably beautiful and heartbreaking depiction of life and love in Europe (specifically Poland) during the 1950s. Based loosely on the experiences of director Paweł Pawlikowski’s parents, who shared a dynamic and climactic love, Cold War is filled to the brim with chaotic serenity and tired weightlessness. I first fell in love with Pawlikowski’s filmmaking with Ida (2013), which proved to be a palpable, stunning experience. Pawlikowski’s cinema is visceral and transfixing, beckoning you like a moth to a flame. Cold War is no different. I was pulled so deeply beneath Cold War‘s waters that my entire viewing experience somehow felt both days and minutes long. Ida and Cold War seem to share something so intimate and exquisite. The delicacy with which Pawlikowski understands and portrays life is something spectacular. Zula (Joanna Kulig) dreams of being a successful singer, while Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is an accomplished jazz musician searching among plaintive melodies of Polish peasants for a new star. They soon find each other and a tumultuous love begins its travels throughout Europe. The troupe Wiktor has collected, with Zula at its center, finds great success as they travel through Poland. Capturing the attention of government officials, they are forced to begin performing Stalinist propaganda pieces so that they may travel to other countries like Yugoslavia, Russia, and East Germany. In Germany, Wiktor abandons the troupe in favor of crossing into West Germany and further into France. He asks Zula to escape with him but she refuses, forming the first rift in their relationship.
I’ll be with you til the end of the world.”
Cold War is about that all-consuming, painful love. Virulent, destructive, and calamitous. There is no real happiness here. Zula and Wiktor often cannot stand to be near each other and yet cannot live without one another. Theirs is a paradoxical love with no solution, condemning them to want and chase each other forever. Their love is broken like their country, torn to tendrils by a much greater force. Wiktor and Zula’s undying hope of finding happiness carries them through a destiny filled with merciless difficulty and agonizing sorrow. Their love is brought forth by excellent direction from Pawlikowski, who sees the world in harsh contrasts and sweeping light. These aphotic blacks and shimmering whites dance across the screen, shot in a neat 4:3 aspect ratio by cinematographer Łukasz Żal.
Joanna Kulig absolutely performs as Zula. She is daring and brash and sweet. She is young and new to the world. She is tired and collapsing with desperation. She crouches in a bathroom drinking straight from the bottle and floats along a stream singing smoothly. She dances feverishly on top of a bar to the tones of Bill Haley and collapses into the arms of her lover. She is perfectly devilish, an assorted mess. To portray such a dynamic and intense character throughout so many different stages of her life takes extraordinary talent which Kulig obviously possesses (not to mention her exquisite voice). Her wonderful performance is backed by those of her castmates, particularly Kot, who perfectly falls in pace with her tempo.
Cold War is a brilliant story of love, real and carnal love, which is inescapable. I think about the film with such tenderness; I have never felt more sorrow nor more hope than in the 88 minutes I sat in the theater gripped by Pawlikowski’s creation. All I was left with was a burning desire to see the end of their story and every little moment in between.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.