“Love’s love and that’s that.”
A pair of star-crossed lovers are the focus of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film consideration. Set in the years following the Second World War, it moves back and forth between the Communist and Democratic worlds, but it is not the geopolitical situation that is reflected in the title, but the relationship between two people who can never be happy apart—or together.
Beginning in 1949, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are traveling the Polish countryside looking for those who know folk songs and dances. They are forming a touring ensemble that would preserve and celebrate this music of the people. One of those who auditions is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman with a dark past who will do whatever it takes to survive in a hard world. Wiktor is immediately drawn to Zula, and before long they are lovers.
But Wiktor and Zula are from two very different worlds. As the government starts politicizing the folk group and its performances, Wiktor begins to think he might be better off in the West. On a trip to Germany, Wiktor plans to defect. He asks Zula to join him, but when the time comes, she doesn’t show up. As the years go by, the two reunite from time to time on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Each time, their passion for each other consumes them, but that passion is not enough. Neither will feel at home in the other’s world. Each reunion brings a new breakup.
Wiktor and Zula are mismatched because of background and the inability to adapt to each other’s world. Just as Wiktor yearned for freedom (both musically and politically), Zula was at home in the Communist state that has given her fame and comfort. When the two are together in Paris, it is clear that Zula will never fit in with the more intellectual world that Wiktor enjoys. They are doomed, not by enmity of those around them as with the original star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, but by their internal hostility to the other’s choices in life. As in the political Cold War, they are constantly seeking a tentative coexistence, but then escalating tensions to an unbearable level.
The black and white, Academy ration cinematography adds a since of nostalgia to the film, as well as a sense of smoldering sexuality. This is a relationship based in passion and the film uses its visual artistry to enhance that. Also of import is the music of the film. The contrast of the politicized Polish folk music and the freedom of Wiktor’s jazz in the West points to the different worlds the two lovers inhabit.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios