Here’s a love story like few others I’ve seen in film- in the grandest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Casablanca (a film Cold War always seems to nod to with its 4:3 Academy-ratio, beautiful black and white photography) these two characters -Wiktor and Zula, star-crossed lovers caught in postwar Europe- are deeply in love but destined to repeatedly fall apart, the same chemistry that brings them together always pushing against them. In just the same way as La la Land told us that not even the greatest of love affairs always end well, so Cold War also casts a cautionary spell, and reminds movie lovers that maybe it’s the saddest love stories that are the best.
Its 1949, and musicologists Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) roam the countryside of Poland recording folk songs as if trying to preserve a way of life before it is lost forever, but their efforts to maintain the music and culture of the common people through a showcase troupe of dancers and singers is increasingly pressed upon by the authorities to also sing the praises of Stalin and communist reforms. Wiktor is smitten by one of the ensemble- Zula (Joanna Kulig), a mysterious young woman who killed her own father (“He mistook me for my mother”, she tells Wiktor, “so I used a knife to show him the difference”). While their secret affair continues the troupe becomes increasingly popular, culminating in an engagement in Berlin in 1952 that offers Wiktor a chance to defect to the West. He urges Zula to join him, but ultimately has to go alone. But of course, that’s not the end of the story, as the years pass and the two lovers inevitably meet again, and part again, and meet and part…
Kulig is pretty astonishing here- I’ve never seen her before and she is simply remarkable in this, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She has this magnetic charisma with the camera, its like watching a movie star of old. Her character is beautiful and talented, but restless and conflicted, a fascinating creation. You just don’t see performances/roles like this very often,
Of course part of the beauty of the film is its gorgeous photography and evocation of a postwar Europe increasingly fracturing between East and West, and the relentless sense that wherever the two lovers are, they never seem to be home, as if ‘home’, that old Poland and its folk songs of impossible loves doesn’t really exist anymore. Forever out of place, their solace together is always temporary.
The frustrations of this film is in this sense of truth- in its unattainable peace, thwarted desires, aching passions there is a feeling of reality and disaster. Its episodic format across the years leaves many questions unanswered, glimpses of the years between hinting at things we can only wonder about. The shades of grey in the exquisite photography is mirrored in the editing and the story, and it is distinctly European, failing to contain any of the platitudes and fairytales a Hollywood love story might have tried to fool us with. Instead, it feels real, and is all the more painful because of it.