The term “love story” is often attached to stories in order to denote a tale of passion or romantic coupling. Sometimes, a love story is even one of friendship, as love is really just a term to describe a bond between peoples of a shared caring. However, not all love stories are the happy-go-lucky kind as the real world doesn’t always work out the way audiences brought up on novels and films would like. It’s this kind, the contentious kind, the antagonistic kind, the dissatisfied kind which writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski explores in his period drama Cold War.
Irena (Agata Kulesza), Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) travel the Polish countryside recording folk songs from villagers in order to catalogue the sounds of Poland as part of Irena’s Mazurek project. After collecting as many songs as possible, the three gather together singers and dancers from around Poland to perform around the country. During the audition process Zula (Joanna Kulig), immediately catches the eye of Wiktor and the two become close, spending more and more time together during preparations for performances. However, no matter how great their longing to be together, their personal desires are constantly functioning at cross-purposes, setting into motion a constant loop of connection and separation.
Considering audiences are used to Technicolor in their love stories, the fact that Cold War is purposefully black and white will likely suggest that there’s something grand or epic in the telling of the tale. Instead, Cold War is far more insular and quiet, the black and white cinematography befitting as a means of capturing the tone of post-World War II Poland: a country which had been ravaged by war, whole towns in ruins, and its people trying to rebuild. It’s not bleak, but stark. In the opening scenes, for instance, as Irena, Wiktor, and Kaczmarek travel the Polish countryside to record, it’s winter and the world is buried in snow. As such, these three stand-out against the bright background, their car and clothes in direct contrast to the seemingly endless white. Later, when the location shifts to Paris at night, the hints of light offer the audience a glimpse of what Wiktor and Zula see as they take a late-night boat ride. Colorless would suggest an absence, whereas the black and white enhances the complexity of the characters and the world they inhabit. In the case of Wiktor and Zula, it represents their constant state of arousal: always longing for each other, yet perpetually unhappy together; not polar opposites which reject each other, but opposing energies which slowly repel.
Pawlikoski’s choice of title beautifully corresponds to both the theme of the film, as well as the time period. From the first meeting of our characters, it’s clearly established that Wiktor sees himself as a man with few options, tied to the Mazurek project if only to keep his fingers limber and himself out of trouble. Everything gets shaken for him when Zula first arrives and it’s the first time that the audience gets any kind of real energy from the cast. Until she appears, there’s no real difference between Cold War and any other period film, but Zula’s arrival signals an abrupt change in tone and feel. Wiktor seems more attentive and the scenes themselves feel more vibrant. Some of this could easily be attributed to Kulig’s entrancing performance – one which requires her to convey all of Zula’s emotions with as few words or gestures as possible. However, unlike Wiktor, Zula is at peace in her place in Poland, as well as within the Mazurek project, making their love immediately destined for catastrophe. As the title suggests, the relationship between Wiktor and Zula is tempestuous at best, downright cruel at its worst, and yet, it’s never broadcast. It’s always conveyed through action or, as is frequently the case in Cold War, inaction with the fallout from each instance of conflict becoming more and more severe. Yet, each endure it in such a steadfast way which would feel nearly implausible if not for the clear chemistry between the characters and the incredible subtext they exude.
In many ways, the bulk of Cold War is primarily subtext, forcibly executed by Pawlikowski through jumps in time and location at the end of each significant narrative moment. In this regard, the love story takes on a dream-like feel, an aspect which continues to support the use of black and white to depict it. It’s the moments together which matter, as Pawlikowski all but ignores the times in-between. For example, the film begins in 1949 and ends in 1964, and yet, despite enormous gaps, the only events that matter are the ones in which Wiktor and Zula are together. With little context or explanation, the audience observes as these two characters meet, dissolve, and begin again, the locations are only important as the pressure they add to the individuals, fueling their passion and repulsion. With so much focus on their love story, the political intrigue of the era, as well as their interpersonal details, rarely takes center-stage unless it’s a means of propelling Cold War forward. With so many films presenting a love story as occurring in spite or despite something, Pawlikowski’s approach is unique and challenging, especially as it barrels toward a conclusion which is befitting the turbulent romance at the center of the tale.
Pawel Pawlikowski is very clear that Cold War and the characters of Wiktor and Zula are inspired from his own parents’ relationship, yet the whole of the film is not autobiographical. This, however, does not prevent Cold War from clearly being incredibly personal for Pawlikowski and the whole of it feels that way. Set against a period of reconstruction in post-World War II Europe in which his parents lived, every segment of Cold War feels small and insular. Merely by controlling visual elements – 4:3 aspect ratio and black and white imagery – and manipulating time, Pawlikowski ensures the only thing the audience knows is what we observe, all of which is kept in tight focus. Admittedly, Cold War is not a typical love story in which its leads are wonderful people triumphing against all odds to prove their love is real. Rather, Pawlikowski’s Cold War feels more real in its depiction of a hard love set in hard times. Inevitably, audiences will find themselves similarly conflicted as they discover themselves enamored with this bittersweet tale of two lovers and their dogged determination to be together, even when it means doing terrible things to themselves or others.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.