Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is brim-full of music, singing and dancing, but it’s as far from a musical as it is possible to be. If you have seen Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), you know what mood to expect. It opens with three people travelling through the snow in a van to remote Polish villages, recording the music of farmers and working class members. We learn that those three people are the co-directors of a musical college who want to find the biggest talents in order to tour Europe. The introverted musical director, Wiktor, soon falls for a fantastic singer called Zula. She knows what she wants, and she wants Wiktor, there and then. In Poland, in 1949, it can’t have been easy at all to be that forward for a young woman. That Zula is on probation because she stabbed her incest-minded father makes her even more fascinating to Wiktor.
Eventually, some Communist functionary praises the school’s dedication to perpetuate Poland’s national songbook, but could they also add some songs and dances praising Comrade Stalin? The school must obey, and soon enough, Wiktor and Zula escape during a Berlin gig. Up to that point, Cold War is excellent. There is a moment where the school’s dancing director Irena cannot stand Communist involvement any longer, and quits. She is played by Agata Kulesza, who was already in Ida, and there is a moment where her face freezes in stone-cold anger. That expression is a molecule from all the recent movies that I will remember for a long time. Then she gets up and leaves.
As soon as the movie concentrates on their love story, something is lost. Zula is outspoken, even slightly wild, while Wiktor is fine just sitting there silently, chain-smoking, but during the Berlin gig, she has doubts and doesn’t turn up at the checkpoint at the agreed time. Wiktor crosses over to West Berlin alone, and they will only see each other again after a few years. If you are used to epic, sweeping musical scores, you will be disappointed: Cold War doesn’t have a score, although there is folk, jazz, soul, mariachi music and much more. The thing is that when Zula and Wiktor see each other again, the emotional component has to come from you. The movie doesn’t tell you what to feel. That is slightly more complicated than it sounds because whereas Wiktor has crossed over to the West because he wanted to live with Zula, she herself, although rather unpolitical, found her singing and dancing troupe quite fun, even under Stalin’s dictatorial gaze. And if it’s her not meeting Wiktor because of last-minute doubts, it’s him who suffers more than her, especially since she eventually marries an Italian whom we never see while he is content with a string of lovers. I had no trouble believing their love; it was their moments for not wanting to be together I found at odds with the rest of their amour fou.
Another difficulty is that Zula must needle her lover because that is the way she is. It’s not as if she doesn’t have a point: his passivity might drive a lot of women up the wall. And Wiktor is so daft as to have his French lover, a poet, translate that one Polish song that features in many forms throughout the whole movie. Bad move, mate. As soon as Zula finds out, she gets drunk and dances with other guys. The recording doesn’t go well, and Wiktor is caught and held for years in a working camp. There is only one way to free Wiktor so that they can be together, and it’s a drastic one. I was happy tagging along with the two lovebirds, but I found the ending unnecessarily cruel.
Tomasz Kot brings a great, if minimalist, performance to this feature, but this is Joanna Kulig’s movie. Her Zula is one of this year’s memorable performances. She is also the bar singer in Ida, and she had a bit part in the Ethan Hawke/Kirstin Scott Thomas vehicle The Woman in the Fifth, also directed by Pawlikowski, and alongside Juliette Binoche in Elles. If you ask me, there is nothing to stop Joanna Kulig from having a career in both acting and music.