Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Cold War is a love story between Zula and Wiktor, told over the course of fifteen years made tumultuous due to Poland’s politics of the time. The various difficulties they face, both between each other and with their government, turn them into a modern-er day Romeo & Juliet, two people destined for each other or, as the longline suggests, “condemned” to each other.
Stylistically this film is pretty much right up my alley. It’s filmed in black and white in a 4:3 ratio with carefully assembled static and dolly shots that suggest a great depth of attention given to each frame. It is a mostly silent story with only diegetic music (and plenty of it considering the two lovers meet in a music troupe) that calmly jumps through the years with occasional cuts to black, used to punctuate the end of a particular chapter of their story.
It plays with time, moving seamlessly through it like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), two of my absolute favorite movies, but each individual moment, when given attention, is told with patience. Pawlikowski uses this same type of framing, both literally and temporally, in his previous film 2013’s Ida. That would be a movie that Paul Schrader admitted was a huge influence on his most recent film, First Reformed.
The result is that we see a series of vignettes, small and tender moments made epic by the way they are captured and then quickly left behind. There is a lot of silence and focus on the two characters’ faces, and most of the story is left unseen.
Michel Haneke similarly uses the style on display in Cold War. His films like The Seventh Continent (1989), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) and Code Unknown (2000) narrows the focus to seemingly small, isolating moments and separates them with the same kind of cut to black. This would seem to disjoint any sense of rhythm onscreen, but it never does, just as it never does here.
That style, the cut often accompanied by the sudden departure or arrival of some kind of sound, helps you feel the amount of time that has passed. It has the effect of observing someone’s life, blinking and then suddenly finding yourself a year ahead in time.
I suppose there’s something existential about it, about how long the moment may seem to last (in effect feeling outside of time, as one character suggests) followed by how quickly it is a thing of the past. With each movement forward in time the characters often look different, choices both conscious and unconscious, things they may not recognize in themselves but which we can’t help but notice. By the end they do look the fifteen years older they are meant to be.
In my obsession with this kind of austere style, which to me is very self-assured but to others may read as self-congratulatory, I haven’t yet talked about the story.
Zula and Wiktor meet when she auditions for a traveling music troupe he is to direct. We first see him traveling the countryside and recording old folk songs which he later spices up to have performed in front of wealthy audiences who surely wouldn’t have the time or access to listen to the original incarnations of those same songs.
This sets up a certain dichotomy between worlds, something which is only heightened when Wiktor and his co-producer are forced to conduct propaganda music in praise of Josef Stalin.
If the movie angles towards politics, it’s only to establish the challenges Wiktor and Zula will face to be together. He will escape to France, and though she is expected to go with him, she will remain behind. A couple years later she marries a Sicilian in order to get out of the country, and soon they resume their intense love affair. At this time she will tell him she’s married, and they both know that he is living with another woman, a poet, but these people and forces never interfere with their romance.
Like Romeo & Juliet the love between these two is all consuming. They are together so infrequently, all things considered, but of course the movie jumps through time so that we only really ever see them together. In one scene he says goodbye to her for a year or two, but the very next scene we see shows them meeting again, that year or two later.
Their love is a force which seems to possess them. It is volatile and because of that it has the power to build them up and tear them down, which it will later into the film. After things start to go bad in the way they often do in romantic dramas, she will head back to Poland. Sometime later he decides to follow her back but because this will be his second illegal border crossing he becomes a prisoner of war (an alleged British spy).
Later she visits him and promises to get him out, which she does, and later after that, in fact the very next scene, he visits her in her new domestic but unhappy life. She is married to a man we met in Act One and whom they both know, but he and her young son are just the latest pawns in their all-consuming love. After we first meet them they will be all but forgotten, not just by us but seemingly by Zula too.
The film ends with the suggestion that they will be together and forever, and based on me bringing up Romeo & Juliet several times, you can figure out what sort of ending I’m talking about here.
This type of love, at least as it’s presented here, will always feel grand and somewhat unrealistic. It’s fated and doomed but also a gift. It’s almost literally all these two characters need to survive, and sure, such an idea and such a finale might feel incredibly melodramatic, I mean I can’t argue that it isn’t, but it fits in line with the rest of the film.
Maybe this movie isn’t as great as I think it is, in fact it’s probably not. The more I think about it the more I feel there is to nitpick, but why nitpick? I was engaged the entire time, and I’m a sucker for the way Pawlikowski presents this story. It doesn’t even matter what the story is because I would be engaged no matter what. You show me anyone’s life presented sparsely over the course of a decade or two, and I’m in. I love seeing the ways things change, particularly as they are things the characters don’t realize have changed or are continuing to change. It offers the viewer a sort of omniscience, that we can see and appreciate their worlds in a way they can’t. Hopefully, then, we can walk out of the theater and see our own world with a similar perspective.
Up Next: Smashed (2012), Fyre (2019), Misery (1990)