“Cold War” — A Love Story

January 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like “Ida,” his 2013 film, Pawel Pawlikovsky’s new film “Cold War” is visually stunning. Like “Ida,” it is shot in black and white, often with high contrast, and in the old 4:3 aspect ratio. And like “Ida,” it departs from movie conventions we’ve come to take for granted. (My post on “Ida” is here.) The storytelling is elliptical. It skips over long periods of time, and the characters rarely explain their choices. The audience must fill in the gaps.

“Cold War” is set in Europe — mostly between Communist Poland and Paris, mostly  in the 1950s. That’s half the implication of the title.  It’s a love story, but not the kind we’re used to. That’s the other half. In “Cold War,” love is a powerful force of attraction between the couple, Wiktor and Zula. But while it brings them together, it brings them little joy. The main publicity picture for the film (the freeze frame below) shows a moment of happiness and tenderness between them. But in the film, such moments are rare.

The film spans fifteen years. For much of that time, the lovers are apart, in different countries having joyless, passionless affairs and marriages with other people. Yet when Wiktor and Zula are together, their relationship is marked by conflict, anger, and betrayal. They separate, sometimes for years, but they cannot escape the force that makes each reunion passionate and painful. That force could be called love, but it’s far different from the love played out in most American films.

In our movies, love makes sense. It brings together two people who should be together. It infuses their relationship with passion, warmth, contentment. Conflicts may arise, but love can overcome them. Usually those conflicts are internal — the person’s own thoughts or problems that prevent him or her or both from realizing their love for the other person. Or the problem may be external — another man or woman trying win one of them away. Usually this person is flawed, acting on some selfish motive, The main character eventually sees through it all and frees himself or herself from whatever hold this person has on them and returns to the one who was right for them all along. If the movie is drama and not comedy, the lovers might not wind up together in the end. One or both may die. They may go their separate ways. But they’ll always have Paris.

In “Cold War,” Wiktor and Zula have Paris, where the freedom of the West allows them to develop their music (he’s a pianist, she a singer). The folk tunes that in Poland they had to transform into large choral numbers and then hymns to Stalin in Paris become sultry, smoky jazz songs, notably the one in the trailer.

You can imagine how this would play out in an American film. With artistic freedom, the lovers blend their Polish traditional culture with jazz, find success, and live happily ever after. In “Cold War,” the transition from Poland to France brings little comfort. The translation of that song from Polish to French falls flat. (I assume the symbolism is deliberate.) The words are meaningless. “The pendulum killed time.” Worse, the translator is a woman Wiktor is sleeping with. Nor is Zula exactly faithful. (“Michel is great,” she tells Wiktor, “he fucked me six times in one night.”)*

Love in “Cold War” also has a decidedly unAmerican relation to the larger forces of government and society. In our films, these forces may keep the lovers apart for a while, but either the lovers fight against these constraints and win, or they escape. Even if they die, their spirit is undaunted. In “Cold War,” both Wiktor and Zula, in different ways, compromise themselves, or rather the state, personified by Communist bureaucrat Kaczmarek, forces compromise upon them. The solutions that are almost a cliche in movies set in the West are unimaginable in a totalitarian state, not even in the movies.

Bleak, yes, but well worth seeing. The film does not yet have wide distribution. It may not be coming soon to a theater near you. Currently it’s playing in only six theaters, three of them in New York. But if you have the chance, see it while you can.


* The only other clip from the film that I could find on the Internet also gives the same sense of their relationship in Paris. Wiktor and Zula sit at the bar in a club. Wiktor talks to a man seated next to him, Zula looks bored. “Rock Around the Clock” comes up on the jukebox. Zula gets up and dances with one man after another and finally gets up on the bar, dancing solo, flouncing her skirt, while Wiktor looks on with what seems to be a combination of resignation and distaste. The video is here.

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