At the height of the Cold War Eastern Europe’s New Wave cinema prodded at the absurdities of life in the “socialist” bloc. Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film plays to the best of the genre.
Beginning in 1940s Poland after the Second World War, Cold War charts the relationship of musicians Zula Lichon (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot).
Their fatal attraction straddles the Iron Curtain, from the barbed wire and checkpoints of East Berlin to the smoke-filled jazz bars of 1950s Paris.
Wiktor and Irena are colleagues touring the war-torn countryside of 1940s Poland in search of the best peasant music.
Their field recordings of village folk make for haunting listening at the beginning, with songs of sadness, struggle and dignity.
Pawlikowski has made a great effort to visually recreate Polish society throughout that period. And, alongside the monochrome cinematography, it seems like a conscious nod to the New Wave’s use of real people in films.
As Wiktor and Irena press on through the winter countryside, the frost is setting in across the Eastern Bloc. Lech Kaczmarek—their Communist Party supervisor—sits uneasily in the van with them.
The country’s new Stalinist regime needs to shore up a base of power. And, like many of the Eastern Bloc states, it welded a romanticised view of peasant culture, folklore and nationalism to its project of rapid modernisation.
A fumble in the toilet marks the beginning of Zula and Wiktor’s love affair
Wiktor and Irena are recruiting for the all-singing, all-dancing Mazurek Ensemble. Those village folk who made it through the auditions are brought to an old country house to what looks like a Stalinist version of Poland’s Got Talent. The very best will be showcased by the regime.
Being the authentic peasant article isn’t what matters here.
Zula sings a ripped-off song from a Russian film and obviously didn’t grow up in Slavic rural idiocy.
But she fits the regime’s view of a happy maiden—and she is hired to join the troupe. Pawlikowski’s shots are as well-crafted and choreographed as Mazurek’s performances. Their first show is a success. A fumble in the toilet marks the beginning of Zula and Wiktor’s love affair.
As their success grows the Communist authorities demand more open propaganda from the group. Kaczmarek suggests throwing in a “number about the leader of the world proletariat”—Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
The Ensemble goes to the World Festival of Youth in East Berlin.
Wiktor and Zula are separated when he goes towards the bright lights of bohemian decadence in West Berlin, although they continue to see each other for years afterwards.
There is an obvious imbalance of power in their relationship and the film doesn’t entirely skirt over it.
Zula is unhappy as her whole career comes across as a projection of Wiktor’s own ambitions for her.
Peace seems impossible right up to the end of the film.
Pawlikowski’s film-making ability, Kulig’s and Kot’s performances and the breadth of musical talent make it worth watching for all audiences.