“Cold War”: The ‘Other’ Black-and-White Foreign Film is a Brilliantly Bleak Love Story

“A ja chłopca chaps! za szyję, będę kochać póki żyję
Będę kochać póki żyję”

“But I will grasp him tight, I will love him ‘till I die
I will love him ‘till I die”

-“Two Little Hearts”

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

What makes a movie a musical? I found myself wondering this as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War moved from beautiful close ups of Polish folk singers to a Berlin propaganda rally for Stalin to Parisian jazz clubs, and finally back to ‘60s Poland. Music was used to show the progression of time and location in a way that not even color-filled backgrounds could. Before we even meet our main characters, we see the impoverished faces of rural Polish adults and children. The central lovers of the story, composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the younger singer Zula (Joanna Kulig in one of my favorite performances of the year), are presented in a world ruined by decades of war and poverty, with hopes held on a freer life through music.

The musical pieces and performances often tell us how the characters are feeling. Wiktor becomes immediately infatuated as he watches Zula sing, and the affection is proven mutual while Zula is doing vocal training with him. The characters see their freedom being stripped away through progressively propaganda-laden performances. When Zula sees Wiktor left his seat in the audience years later, her voice begins to falter. After another heartbreak, Wiktor begins slamming keys during a jazz improvisation. “Two Little Hearts” (“Dwa serduszka”) is reprised at multiple points in the film and encapsulates the film’s central conflict quite well, all the way to the end.  

But how can it be a musical with such effective use of silence and bleak desperation? From the first moments of the film you could sense the destruction caused by the War through both the physical ruins and the weariness worn on the faces of the traveling group of musicians. The political divisions caused by the communist takeover of Eastern Europe were also clear. A folk song is refused by the group because it was sung in a language of people who were ethnically cleansed during the War. One of the leaders of the musical ensemble, Kaczmarek, supported the Soviet influence, even suggesting changing one of the performer’s hair color to look more “traditional”. Wiktor, unable to be part of this takeover, knew his days as conductor were numbered.

Cold War beautifully juxtaposed the two main characters, and made the tragedy caused by their need for each other central, even with all the chaos surrounding them. While Zula carried the film with her powerful words and expressions, Wiktor played the exact opposite role, carrying his scenes with equally powerful silence and yearning. It was Wiktor who seemed to be chasing the better life and did everything possible to make Zula part of it (without much consideration of how invested she was in the plans). She showed apprehension towards leaving for France, ultimately deciding not to join him when he crossed the border. As the years passed, Wiktor continued pursuing her, and Zula needed many years (and an unloving marriage) to finally commit to Wiktor. We aren’t shown what the conversations are like between these moments interspersed in time. Did Wiktor incessantly call her, or did it go both ways? Would she have continued to pursue him if he ended things in the 40s? Who came up with the plan to escape through a Sicilian marriage?

Even once they ultimately reunited in Paris, she remained unfulfilled. Zula reached a low point while getting drunk to avoid the discomfort of a social situation, leading to the realization that the Wiktor she fell in love with in Poland was not the same man she was with in Paris (more likely, this idealized version never existed at all). After finding out he lied about her background and being pressured into recording an album with little interest, she escaped Wiktor and went back to her past life.

Zula was being held captive throughout the movie, both by the music ensemble which became choral propaganda and by Wiktor’s obsessive love. Wiktor’s obsession led to his own literal imprisonment, illustrated by one of the most striking scenes of the movie; Zula appeared to be in control, having money to bribe the guard. But it soon became clear that she remained in her own kind of personal prison. In one final act of defiance, Zula chose freedom in the most final way. The abandoned church, still in ruins decades after the War, was the perfect backdrop for this climactic scene.

The story left such an impact that I’m still replaying it in my head a couple of days later, but I can’t end this review without heaping praise on the incredible cinematography by Lukasz Zal. The way the movie is filmed makes the characters look as imprisoned as they feel (and sometimes literally are). My favorite film technique was the use of reflections, which were tactfully used in several scenes. In one particularly poignant moment, Zula is dispassionately singing a French-translated “Two Little Hearts”, we can see her pain in the reflection of the studio glass as Wiktor exhaustingly prods her to give more effort. Along with the three Oscar nods, I wouldn’t have been disappointed seeing more, especially for Joanna Kulig’s performance.

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the western world collectively and individually felt a desperate need to find meaning. Powerful countries found it in the Cold War for Democracy or Communism, and out of this came more carnage and destruction. In Cold War, Pawlikowski zoomed into two individuals and their found meaning in each other, for better and for much worse, until death did they part.

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