Death is not the natural enemy of love—ideology is. Academy Award-winning auteur Pawel Pawlikowski understands that better than anyone. He saw how exile, separation, and transience took a toll on his Polish defector parents, but it never quelled their mutual ardor. Their story inspired the perfectly yet tragically matched lovers in Pawlikowski’s Cold War (trailer here), Poland’s official foreign language Academy submission, which opens this Friday at Film Forum.
Neither Wiktor or Zula is all that interested in folk music, but they both see Mazurek, a traditional dance troupe, as a vehicle to help them get what they want. For the classically-trained, Western-influenced Wiktor, it is a chance to travel and possibly escape, whereas Zula merely sees it as a means of avoiding her abusive father. However, they share an immediate connection that only becomes more potent and passionate over time.
Right from the start, their romance is a rocky one, especially when Zula confesses she agreed to inform on Witkor as part of her terms of employment. Inevitably, they agree to defect one fateful night in pre-Wall East Berlin. However, Witkor slips across alone when Zula fails to met him at the designated time. By doing so, he becomes an enemy of the state, but that will not be enough to halt their romance.
Thus, begins a long, agonizing period of hasty meetings, unsatisfying encounters, assorted defections, and costly repatriations. Cold War is only a mere 89 minutes, but it tells an epic, decade-spanning story. Frankly, it could be considered a 21st Century Doctor Zhivago, chronicling an intimate love story against the sweeping backdrop of historical chaos and oppression, but Pawlikowski does it all with elegant narrative economy—and jazz.
Music is important to this love story, starting with Mazurek’s choral performances, but fully blossoming with the hardbop-style jazz Witkor plays in Paris and the torchy LP he tries to produce for Zula. It all sounds perfectly era appropriate and in the case of the jazz, smoky and swinging, thanks to Marcin Masecki’s arrangements and piano stylings. It really helps us understand the depth of his feelings and the melancholy of his blues.
Tomasz Kot also seems very attuned to the music as he broods, yearns, and chafes under authority. As Wiktor, he raises world weariness to a high art form. The romantic rapport he forges with Joanna Kulig’s Zula is palpable and often quite painful to witness. Kulig melts microphones with her sultry vocals and rivets viewers with the sensitivity and brittleness of her performance. It is no exaggeration to say they represent one of the finest on-screen pairings of the post-millennium era.
The design team faithfully recreates the mean cruddiness of Communist Poland and East Berlin, but Lukasz Zal makes it all look strikingly beautiful with his award-worthy black-and-white cinematography. Every frame of every shot is truly a work of art. In terms of technical craftsmanship, Cold War could well be the strongest film of the year, but it also connects on a deeply emotional level.
There are many good reasons Cold War dominated the European Film Awards. It is easily the best looking and sounding narrative film of the year. In fact, it is the best of the year, even eclipsing Never Look Away. Very highly recommended, Cold War opens this Friday (12/21) in New York, at Film Forum.