A few weeks ago, I was crouched in a narrow seat at a Broadway theater—one of those venues where the banks of chairs are wedged in so tightly that your lips hover just above the ears of the person in front of you, prompting spontaneous conversation and involuntary eavesdropping. The older ladies behind me wanted assurances that I’d remove my peaked winter hat and pointed to the man on the other side of the aisle, who sat with a Stetson stolidly affixed to the crown of his head—an obstructed view for whomever sat behind him. There can be no cowboys on Broadway, we agreed.
As we laughed, a young woman arrived to sit in front of us. She wore a rose-colored corduroy coat, a fine-waled, delicate layer that no New Yorker would risk brushing against subway seats or coffee-clutching pedestrians unless they got around mostly by chauffered car. Her voice gave her away—in fact, her voice arrived first, firm, throaty, assured but without arrogance. When I heard it, I recognized her: her broad forehead and heart shaped face, her snub nose and shaggy, blonde hair. She starred in a recently-released, limited series, and I’d spent several nights watching and thinking about this young actress, how she seemed too young to be believable for the story but was nonetheless also perfectly cast, because her voice makes her seem more mature. I love a contradiction conveyed in someone’s body—experience beyond years, for example. You don’t always want an actor that fits expectations within a part; sometimes you want someone who chafes at your attention, churns up the mind, commands your eyes without being subsumed into the narrative you watch. Sometimes, I guess, you don’t want realism—you want something better than realism.
While I was considering this, her date arrived, a TV actor arguably better known but without the artistic bona fides that this young actress already carried with her. A bit callow, a little too old for her but with a young demeanor. As the lights went down, we all quieted to contemplate the drama. I watched the play over the shoulder of this young actress—watched her tilt her head and incline it on her date’s shoulder. Watched as her date regarded her to see what lines made her bark out a laugh, watched his enjoyment hinge on her pleasure. It didn’t matter that one could make all kinds of prognostications about their future together based upon their individual professional standing, or that this seemed to be the start of a relationship when they are more likely to give the most of themselves, with inevitable caveats and hesitations to come. It was compelling to be near the intimacy of a couple—so close that you picked up the shivers of energy between two people who consider themselves quite right for each other.
This same sense of occasion, of a shared secret, of the buzzy feeling of accelerating interest colliding with unpredictable natures is what drives Paweł Pawlikowski’s new romance, Cold War.
It feels like romance has gone out of style at the movies, which is probably right and called for, since so many bad attitudes and toxic behaviors have been immortalized in films—foremost, the rusted principle that the love of a man is the ultimate objective and achievement for a woman; that men can behave badly to perpetrate and prolong romance; that women can realize adventure only thanks to an adventurous man. Movies can be many things, but they don’t reflect real life—even if “realist,” they’re real life made artful. Perhaps they work best as dreams— offering wish fulfillment, heightening and aestheticizing whatever they address. But they are not, let’s say, a model for building intimacy. A movie couple builds attachment in telegraphed beats that are necessarily only gestures. But what if a woman drives the love story, and she’s a mystery to herself as well as to her lover and her audience? What if she’s always crashing the same car, metaphorically speaking, but in ways so unpredictable the man can’t help but be transfixed? What if, sometimes, what we want is a spell?
A mid-winter love affair feels decadent but also rather necessary—emotional embers breathing fire and passion into a darkened, cold world—and Pawlikowski’s turbulent period romance rewards like a hot chocolate spiked with brandy: warming, bracing, to be savored. Cold War is a love story that doesn’t necessarily uphold the premise at the center of most filmed love affairs: that the act of loving is a reward, that it will save or center you. Love, however, gives life shape, serves as an act of self-definition, and has hard consequences—something rather rare in an age of cheap travel and nearly unlimited digital connection. Here is love that means everything, because you can’t temper its loss by starting anew without grave consequence.
Cold War centers on the irresistible, unreasonable attraction between two people, and it relies on the sparking, combustible energy of its lead character, Zula (Joanna Kulig), to compel her lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) to cross borders and decades, thinking only of her. Falling in love in Communist-era Poland, this tempestuous pair discover their attachment is even more entrenched than their oppressors’ reach; or maybe, for them, the conditions of love and tyranny are inextricably linked.
At the start of Pawlikowski’s previous film, the Oscar-winning post-war fable Ida, a young novitiate is sent from the convent where she grew up to find her family before she can take orders as a nun. This tentative young woman learns that she had been born Jewish and was left as an infant with the nuns to ensure her survival. As Ida travels through Poland to search for her murdered parents’ bodies, she encounters life beyond the convent.
Ida is an interrogation of faith’s origins and qualities. Is it innate or learned? Does piety count unless the bearer has tasted the worldly pleasures she’s giving up, unless she has been tested? But Ida is also about how much any of us can bear to steer our own lives. Along the way, the would-be nun and her hard-drinking aunt pick up a musician and drop him at his next gig. There, for the first time, Ida finds life unhitched from grim political history or religious stricture; she discovers agency and freedom in the form of decadent, apolitical Western jazz.
Kicking over the traces of World War II and fronting the band is a vivacious, champagne-haired singer—a glancing portrait, serving mostly to underscore the riot of experience that Ida has not encountered, the variety of life into which she could launch herself. Kulig, an effervescent actress who has appeared in three of Pawlikowski’s films, plays the singer—a breath of freedom and lightness in musical form—and her appearance in Ida contains, perhaps, the kernel of a personality that Pawlikowski revisits in greater breadth and depth in Cold War.
In Ida, jazz offers a tempting peek at a larger world that proves too much for the young woman, who has the wisdom to see how truly orphaned she’d become in it. Similarly, in Cold War, music, the profession and passport for Zula and Wiktor, promises liberation at a price. Like Ida, Zula—ebullient, charming, defensive, shrewd—fails to run toward freedom because of a crisis of confidence. Who will I be outside of Poland? she asks Wiktor, when he lays out his plan for escape. On a government-approved musical tour to Berlin, they find themselves tantalizingly close to freedom in the West. For the first but not the last time, Zula thwarts herself and their attachment by clinging to the safety of her homeland. Also not for the last time, Wiktor walks stoically away from her—only to find that neither are free, wherever they find themselves. She can’t quit him, and the feeling is mutual.
Like his compatriot Krzysztof Kieślowski, Pawlikowski began his career in documentaries. While Kieślowski seemed to construct his dramatic works by imbuing small moments (a sugarcube drenched in coffee, a child’s hand grasping a glittering candy wrapper) with spiritual significance, Pawlikowski uses documentary techniques to shape his films through wit and disjunction: watching with some amusement as his subjects betray themselves. He begins Cold War with a nod to his past work—opening, rather surprisingly, on the faces and bodies of rural Polish musicians: unadorned, unlit, contorted in song, hands knitted around a clarinet or sawing at a fiddle, posed in the countryside, hens, dogs and cattle in the distance. We discover the story gradually: we are accompanying some variety of ethnomusicologists as they travel; then, we learn they are casting a national folk troupe; we watch as they rehearse numbers to celebrate Poland and to underwrite the Communist regime that rules the country.b
There is some sense of privilege in participating in this troupe. A crowd of hopefuls gather to listen to the audition instructions and, as the singers and musicians line up to perform, we pick out one young woman, Zuzanna, nicknamed Zula, who talks her way into performing a duet with a more authentically folk vocalist. “She’s a bit of a con,” the female judge notes to her colleague, Wiktor. The other judge goes on to say that Zula killed her father and is on some sort of probation now. Love arrives in the form of narrative, when the beloved becomes a story in the mind of the lover. Wiktor hears Zula’s history, and he is smitten. For him (and for us), Zula is talented, one of a kind, possibly a bit dangerous.
Wiktor, on the other hand, is tempered and adaptable. In Poland, he seems controlled and authoritative. And while one might suppose that he flees for artistic freedom in the West, urbane Paris has its own set of required postures and stances to which he acquiesces. He is humbled. As all expatriots do, Wiktor performs a version of himself, an act of theater that renders him diffident and aspirant to Parisian culture. He adapts to his life; still, he waits for Zula, expecting her at a restaurant when the folk troupe performs in Paris, traveling to Yugoslavia in hopes of seeing her again. It’s a quietly effective performance from Kot—layers of unconditional love, frustration, endurance, and ambition conveyed mainly through his eyes and body language. With Zula, we sense, we should always hope but never rely on her. Months then years elapse as the lovers come together and break apart.
On their first reunion, Zula admits that she doesn’t feel she’s strong enough to survive in the West; when she finally throws over her Sicilian husband, whom she married in part to convince Polish authorities she’s no longer a flight risk, she arrives in Paris. He’s in a darkened recording studio, conducting a small orchestra and scoring a suspense movie. She brightens up the gloomy space—the filmmakers would have us blink, like Wiktor, at her radiance. At last Zula is here to liven things up. We quickly learn that Zula is defiant in Poland but uncomfortable in Paris. She feels insecure and uncertain, which she covers over with drinking, dancing, and a generalized vivacity that culminates in broken glass, accusations, and hinted affairs.
In each elliptical chapter of the film, Pawlikowski upends our understanding of the characters; the film is pulled along by the momentum of their attachment, the incompatibility of their priorities, and the tempo of the music they make together and apart. Their absences from one another are conveyed in gentle cuts to black, suggesting that their time apart only spurs them to be together. The story never feels meandering or episodic, nor does it require any more contextualization than Pawlikowski sketches in. He envisions the story using the 4:3 Academy ratio, an aspect ratio that renders the frame nearly square. It’s an ideal format for single or double portraiture, which he uses to admire the beaten stillness of Wiktor and the messy romance of Zula. In Ida, Pawlikowski and his DP Łukasz Żal often pushed their subjects to the very bottom of the frame, evoking the smallness of their lives, the humility of their stations. In Cold War, the 4:3 square becomes a playful visual field suggesting a kind of moral tic-tac-toe. Director and DP stack faces next to one another—guileless folk musicians, audience members of varying political persuasions, impassioned choral singers against a giant painted image of Stalin—perhaps so that we notice how consistently Wiktor and Zula are out of sync from their surroundings. Zula is an f-stop brighter than her peers; Wiktor has a quietude and intelligence that stands out among the entertained or intoxicated.
Their story is threaded together by the music they make, as they reinterpret and repurpose their Polish heritage, first as propaganda by their government to capture the minds of its people, then as a personal form of nostalgia, then as a shrewd export to draw Western audiences. In idle moments, we find Wiktor playing Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu; we hear haunting choral arrangements of Polish folk tunes (which incidentally seem to resonate with the haunting music that composer Zbigniew Preisner composed for Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films). But the heart of Cold War resides in “Dwa Serduzska” (“Two Hearts”), the song that returns in variations across chapters of the movie, culminating in a smoky jazz standard that Zula purrs into a microphone. Her face, for once, betrays nothing. The couple are together at last, free of Communism and other partners, but Zula, relentlessly changeable, her own emotional microclimate, is discontented. At a party, she questions the liberal French translation of the lyrics, which describes love as a swinging pendulum. “It’s a metaphor,” the poet Juliette (Jeanne Balibar) tells Zula. “Metaphor,” Zula sneers to herself later, swigging from a bottle and hiding in the bathroom. Zula doesn’t live in metaphor. There’s no abstraction for her, no ability to step outside herself. This is what makes Zula compelling but also terrifying. She finds no distance from herself. And so: just at the moment she and Wiktor begin making a mark in Parisian circles with this song they’ve created together, Zula declares the project stillborn, and flees Wiktor once more.
Pawlikowski’s energetic film seems to spring from the rawness of the French New Wave and the political irreverence and non-fiction styling of 1960s Czech films. There are pleasurable quotes in his movie—you’ll recognize frames from Breathless and A Woman Under The Influence and North By Northwest among others—without the film feeling overly referential. But in some ways, it reminds me most of Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novelist began with principles—how to live freely within a compromised totalitarian society, for one—and made them flesh. Kundera and Kaufman turn the womanizing doctor Tomas, his lover Sabina, and his wife Tereza into refugees from the political hypocrisy of Soviet-ruled Czechoslovakia. But they find freedom in the West lonely, even crippling. Tereza says she is not strong enough for life in the West, and returns “to the country of the weak.” Eventually, Tomas finds he has no emotional choice but to follow Tereza back behind the Iron Curtain where, in the limited and humble life offered to them, they find some form of happiness and contentment. Somehow this love triangle recalibrates from the political to the personal to suggest the central question of their lives: to what extent are we our own tyrants, and what must we abandon to find peace?
When Zula flees freedom in the West, Wiktor knows he’ll never see her again unless he chases her back to Poland. He should know better than to follow—returning could mean a death sentence—but he also knows that Zula is the best of what life offers to him. And when this musical couple—whose seduction, courtship, and partnership takes place across countless performances—are stripped of their most defining trait, their music, they discover, for a few small moments, peace in the love that binds them. Cold War can feel melancholy or bittersweet; it can be a cautionary tale (love as a war of attrition is probably not the love anyone is looking for); but it inspires longing, to witness a paradoxical, impossible thing like this perfect and perfectly impossible couple endure.