By Sage Livingstone Molasky ’22
Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War” is a timeless and evocative masterpiece. Its effortless grace, memorable grandeur, and stark visual lyricism has staked claim as a moment in cinematic history.
Pawlikowski sets us in post-war Poland, while a threesome team scours the bleak countryside for young singers and dancers, recruited as folk propaganda — proof of the power in the working man. With Stalin, poverty and white winter as a backdrop, it is Wiktor (Thomas Kot), the musical director under the thumb of a villainous Polish government, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), the striking, feisty country girl turned performer in Wiktor’s company, who emerge from the bleak countryside, ablaze in their longing.
Their love story is brief, spanning 17 years, marked by black interludes and sultry songs. They hope to escape Poland to France, but despite Wiktor’s desire to leave, Zula longs to venture not toward an unknown country, but to remain within a hollowed home. For Zula, the prospect of new life as a foreigner seems too great a burden to bear. This not only heightened the stakes for the two lovers, but also the film’s timely relevance. Although set apart in her historical period, Zula’s grappling with the notion of exile is intimate and immediate; her struggle akin to millions of refugees and immigrants today.
Their passion is one of heat and longing thanks to Kulig’s fiercely funny and matter-of-fact portrayal of a rural woman in love— and at odds— with Wiktor, the “bourgeois wanker.” Both accept their lives situated within a brutal landscape. The movie isn’t a political commentary, but a romantic one. Yet as an audience, we couldn’t mind a bit.
Wiktor, despite his misgivings and thanks to Kot, ambles through the world, empty without Zula, “the love of [his] life.” For these two lovers, Cold War is their world, their immediate reality, so although placed within a frenzied country, teetering upon a ledge, they are our focus, the beating pulse of the film. Like ships passing in the night, Zula and Wiktor light the way, a refuge for one an-other under an oppressive communist ma-chine, or the foreignness of a Francophone artist’s circle. And despite their incendiary spark— leading to an ultimate demise— the solace each finds in the other manifests on screen as more than a romance within a tumultuous world, but a romance set apart in its brilliance.
It’s a kind of quiet storytelling Pawlikowski embraces and that seems the most pertinent of Cold War’s latent powers. Zula and Wiktor love in sporadic sequences. We aren’t privy to the lives they have lived be-fore, but that doesn’t quite matter. In the brief time we know them (a mere 1 hour 28 minutes staggered with images of Parisian monuments, abandoned Polish churches and stately homes, a black and white cinematic precision expertly crafted by Lukasz Zal) the lovers penetrate the audience and each other with a stark sensuality.
But beyond sex, these two lovers give us humanity. I left altered by the mastery of it all from the heartiness of their brevity, the homage to jazz and its passions, and the aching to belong (to a country, to a purpose, to art, to another). And I was reminded that humans — no matter when we live, who we love, or how we etch ourselves into the fabric of the world — are all searching, endeavoring to find home in whatever form that takes.
Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter