Romantic historical drama feels like an exquisite Polish folk song

Savina Petkova on Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ (2018)

In cinema history, sound followed moving images. It arguably created a more complete sense of spatial perception. On the contrary, Pawel Pawlikowski’s new historio-romantic drama disrupts this presupposed audio-visual cohesion by commencing with sound and no image: a sharp and tumultuous bagpipe melody no less, audibly presented to an initial blank screen. Music in the darkness, music on its own: an essential characteristic of Cold War /Zimna wojna.

Worn fingertips play the accordion and a hand roughly slides the bow on a fiddle as Polish peasants perform a song mourning impossible romance. Cold War employs raw and condensed images of song and tradition to convey a yearning for belonging in both a space and a time. War does not just shape history or borders, it transforms human relations, governs societies on a macro level. There is no doubt that a moody love story set in the 1940s / 1950s would be challenged in such tumultuous warfare circumstances.

Yet, a safe space could be found within: the idyllic image of cultural tradition and the promise of interpersonal intimacy. As Pawlikowski himself shared, folk songs delve deep into his childhood memories. In folk song, the autobiographical context of the film is bolstered in an otherwise elliptic nature: conceived as an idea twenty years ago, the Polish director wanted to tell a tempestuous love story inspired by that of his parents’. This degree of intimacy is felt through the black and white colour palette; despite Cold War binaries, Pawlikowski knows very well that the world is not black & white.

Yet his minimalist choice is both a distancing mechanism and an appropriate way to tell a history that precedes him. Closeness is also portrayed by the use of 1.37:1 ratio; by compressing tension visually, the body is reduced to its erotic potential in fragments, as well faces: the protagonist’s looks of longing are marvellously framed for lengthy seconds of lingering camerawork by Lukasz Zal, previously praised for his impeccable job on Ida (2013).

The ill-timed affair of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) stretches out over a decade across the borders of Poland, USSR, Germany (GDR and DDR), France, and Yugoslavia during the peak times of the Cold War. Excluding the title, the political context is never mentioned by name, yet it mercilessly dictates the characters’ decisions, as romantic-war dramas usually do. While Wiktor goes from Zula’s singing teacher to her lover, Stalinist power demands their folk ensemble be used for political propaganda, “encouraged and given direction”. This political pressure, alongside an age difference, splits the lovers apart only to be reunited again in a dimly-lit empty Parisian bar years later.

Short vignettes take us across borders and time, leaving lacunas of black screen to indicate the passing years. It seems as if they never keep away from each other, spell-bound, with little small talk, but every time passionately kissing before the “final” depart. When they finally come together, they revisit an abandoned church left to demolition. Its naked walls and rubble make for a perfect escape setting, as shots of spiritual destitution recall Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). This oneiric backdrop encloses the couple’s last attempt to be together; in the promise that “the view is better on the other side,” Zula and Wiktor recall classic tales of tragic love.

In fleeing abroad, running from unsatisfying marriages, denouncing relationships, political deportation, and retreating into childhood with traditional melodies, Cold War is obsessed with escape as a coping mechanism. The light camera movements emphasise character’s faces as they sing or play the piano in interiors as an urge to go beyond walls, to transcend the status quo of war and uncertainty. Music is the catalyst that brings the main characters together, pushing and pulling them throughout the War, and yet the last scene remains dead silent. Have we transcended time and space? Probably not. Black screen again.

Fragmentalisation is part of Pawlikowski’s approach of stripping down all the unnecessary explanations, dialogue, and scenes in favour of “the perfect shot”. He succeeds, without a doubt, to map out both his character’s’ development while keeping their passion and drive towards each other intact. We can always tell when Wiktor is looking at Zula when she’s off screen, their shared looks (yet split by two consecutive frames) function as a trope on its own.

Another silky ribbon to tie their intermittent reunions is music. The original folk tune that is the centrepiece of the ensemble theatre act (“Two Hearts, Four hands”) is rendered from its raw primal state to a French chanson, and in a jazz version. The musical continuity brings back a sense of longing for the past, and of recognising its seeds in the ripening of a (warless) future. At the same time, such variations pose the question of authenticity. When it comes to cultural tradition, we have two options: we either protect it until it becomes rigid, or we integrate it as a progressive part of the future. Cold War undoubtedly favours the latter approach, bringing attention to Polish folklore and how it resonates with Eastern European music, thus building a subtle but recognisable image of a historical trauma.

The rhythm of the film is conceived in both visual and musical terms, the evolution and devolution of the love story compiles just eighty-five minutes of intensely emotional screen time, a positively monosyllabic statement when contrasted to the traditionally drawn out war-romance epic, in the vein of Gone with the Wind (1939) or The English Patient (1995). In its long takes, nighttime exteriors and mellow lighting (such that makes water appear as silk), the tactility of Cold War’s visual appearance aches for a soft caress, while Wiktor and Zula painfully discover that they are badly suited and irreparably drawn to each other. As Wiktor exclaims, neutralising his lover’s fear of their compatibility: “I know that love is love and that’s it”. Nevertheless, this turbulent wartime love tale ends more radically than Casablanca (1942).

In a way, Cold War is more indebted to Ida than one is willing to admit. Pawlikowski’s latest feature benefits from the subtle intimacy of his parents’ love story, yet its aesthetic uniformity is more than a faint reminiscence of his 2013 Oscar-winning film. The auteur touch is evident in composition, scene dynamics, and how they work together to form a whole. Yet, both films are two marvelous pieces of cinematic art, dealing with issues from a different range, which are at the same time historically conscious as separate entities. However, one cannot do without the other and their relationship should not be reduced to a chronological one. We may say that the love story of Zula and Wiktor could be taking place in the other corner of the bar sequence where Ida dances with her male almost-lover. The complementary nature of the films elevate Pawlikowski’s directorial skills to a conceiver of tender and raw worlds that belong together. If auteur should be used as an exceptional category, he most definitely deserves it.

Cold War is available in the UK 31st August 2018. You can stream the film below.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.