“A never-ending disaster,”
This story, as you might read in every other mention to it, is both inspired by and dedicated to the parents of its acclaimed director, Paweł Pawlikowski. He described their story as a “never-ending disaster,” but a beautiful one lived by strong people who make for exceptional characters. It is these two people, Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń, a singer and dancer, and Wiktor Warski, a pianist and conductor, that we follow from the 40’s until the 60’s. They move from the Polish countryside to Paris, by way of Berlin, Moscow and other cities where they perform, at first jointly, later separately. In the meantime, a greyness normally attributed to the actual Cold War is ever present as yet another supporting character in the background.
Art meets love in a communist climate.
The story sees the protagonists evolve in their careers differently. At the beginning, Wiktor embarks on a project to record the sounds and music of the Polish rural areas, searching for new, remarkable voices to form a new music company to tour with. Then, Wiktor finds Zula. She is passionate and daring when he seems quiet and introverted. While he struggles with the Soviet authorities and looks for a way out, she is enchanted with her newfound role as leading lady, all eyes on her. We witness the two of them grow in and out of love, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly. At several points, they leave each other and go their separate ways, only to return to each other years later.
The major themes of the film are personal and political conflict, and the longing for liberty under the constraints of oppression. As we see, the governing elite supports the export of traditional Polish song and dance as a form of propaganda, not for art’s sake. But there is also love. After all, this is the story of two people who don’t have a clue how to manage their feelings, but whose passion is stronger than anything else in their lives.
Of course, there’s an obvious level of toxicity in their relationship, but the success of this story lays in having been able to capture the conflict and deep affection between them as the defining elements of their passion. Zula and Wiktor are two independent characters that often want different things from life, who seem to forget why they are together from time to time, and yet they can’t seem to ever truly part from the other. Clearly, a strong magnetism attracts them, but it only lasts so long. In fact, their clashing stance at the beginning of the film, with Zula being protective of her status as leading lady and Wiktor growing tired of his involvement in the company, later brings them back together when they flee Poland.
A work of art, both visually and musically stunning
But it’s not only the story that is brilliant. To say that the cinematography in this film is remarkable doesn’t do it justice. It is a most inspired effort that, in a mere 82 minutes, takes you from a forgotten rural corner of Stalinist Poland to the streets of the wild and free Paris of the 1950’s. All this in black and white and in a 4:3 ratio that makes the picture look almost square and reminds the viewer of the great films of the past. Surely any film has a defining image, a moment which visually embodies the spirit of the story and serves as an iconic reminder of its message in time – think, for instance, of Robert de Niro’s ‘You talkin’ to me?’, Audrey Hepburn window shopping, or Jack Nicholson’s ‘Here’s Johnny!’. However, choosing only one such image in the case of Cold War is very close to impossible.
Also, the film is exquisitely scored and the music breathes life into the story and marks every change in the plot. As their careers progress, the music changes gradually from traditional folk music into more modern jazz arrangements. In fact, they even record some Polish folk tunes as jazz standards while they briefly live together in Paris. There, Zula is escaping her career at home and enjoying freedom, as embodied by her drunkenly dancing to rock and roll, while Wiktor is making a living scoring films and playing in jazz clubs.
A glance into the past
All in all, the journey proposed by this film is the most unique I’ve seen in some time. To me it’s watching how people from my grandparents’ generation lived their lives and their love in a time that seems distant and unknown. The mystique regarding the characters’ origins defines their initial perception, but the rest of the film builds a very real image of two flawed people fighting against their context. As I said in the first paragraph, I went into the cinema without expectations, almost as an experiment, and I was gifted with the best film of the year.
Cover: YouTube Final Editor: Erica Boyce