COLD War is destined to be one of the hit arthouse films of the year. So far, only Apostasy, an insightful film into the underbelly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, comes close to it.
Directed by talented Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War is a taut drama, covering the smouldering 15 year love affair of pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). A relationship set against the backdrop of a Communist Poland in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The affair sizzles like a firecracker – Wiktor, tall and drop-dead handsome: Zula, young, sensual and slightly dangerous (she already has previous for attacking her father with a knife after he ‘mistook’ her for his wife – read into that what you might).
Yet the relationship has more fissures than an erupting Hawaiian volcano. On, off, like a car indicator. Will it survive, thrive or ultimately fizzle out like all firecrackers do?
The couple first meet when Wiktor and his partner Irena (a marvellous Agata Kulesza) are asked to exchange their nomadic life recording people’s singing on a reel to reel tape for one involving the creation of a singing and dance school.
The best of the youngsters who get into the school form the Mazurek Ensemble, a touring showcase for all that is good about Poland under regenerative Communist rule. A throwback to the Aryan beliefs of the Nazis – indeed, at one point, one of the school’s pupils is threatened with expulsion because she is too dark.
Wiktor is instantly bowled over by Zula and it is not long before they are cementing their feelings for one another. The ensemble go on tour but it becomes increasingly politicised with demands for them to cow tow to Stalin. The repercussions are dramatic – for Irena and for Wiktor who flees west through East and West Germany to Paris without Zula who had agreed to join him.
Although Wiktor hooks up with a Parisian poetess (who likes her men) it does not stop him seeing Zula whenever she is on tour. Their feelings for one another ebb and flow like the River Thames tide. On off. On off. Up and down. Highs and lows.
Wiktor is abducted while watching the Ensemble in Yugoslavia. He goes back to Paris, visits the Polish embassy seeking a return to his homeland only to be told he is neither a French or Polish citizen. He tries to enter Poland illegally, only to be caught and imprisoned for 15 years for his sins against the communist state. Zula gets his prison time (in a mine) reduced, they are reunited, but it all ends rather tragically.
There is so much good in this film. Shot in black and white, it extenuates the sensual nature of Wiktor’s and Zula’s couplings and decouplings. It also enhances many of the film’s core scenes – from the duo floating down the Seine on a boat while lovers kiss on the sidewalk and tramps get forty winks, through to the rumbustious jazz club in Paris where Wiktor plays piano.
You can almost smell the cigarette smoke seep through the film’s cellulose acetate.
The music is thrilling, embracing lashings of Polish folk music, sensual moody jazz and a wonderful scene where the jazz club is suddenly electrified by the playing of Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around The Clock. As this song is belted out, a rather drunk Zula throws herself from man to man with youthful abandon. A fantastic scene as are the opening moments of the film when Polish peasants sing a folk song and play on their violins. In the background, children look on expressionless.
Some may say the film jumps too much for their liking, leading to a fracturing of key themes, but it adds to the overall tautness. Cold War is almost over in the flicker of an eyelid. It does not contain one ounce of fat. Lean meat.
Kot and Kulig (who also appeared in Pawlikowski’s 2013 hit Ida) steal the film with their chemistry and good looks. But there is more than admirable support from Kulesza and Borys Szyc as the scheming Kaczmarek (initially Wiktor and Irena’s driver) who will do anything for his communist masters and to get into bed with Zula.
Jeanne Balibar plays a wonderful cameo as Wiktor’s Parisian lover. Indeed, her exchange one night with the pianist is one of the film’s highlights. ‘Have you been whoring?’ she asks when he gets home late one night and she is lying in bed seductively.
‘I have been with the woman of my life,’ he casually replies. Balibar glares at him and then dismissively turns her back on him.
Cedric Kahn is also scintillating as Michel, a rather seedy Parisian friend of Wiktor’s whose intentions towards Zula (or for that matter any beautiful woman) are far from honourable. Michel is a film director for whom Wiktor has worked composing film scores. It is all somewhat Harvey Weinstein like.
The cinematography (Lukasz Zal) is exceptional as is the costume design (Aleksandra Staszko). As for Marcin Masecki, he deserves a medal for the music and song arrangements. Originality is his second name.
Cold War is magical cinema. Unmissable. Like a good wine, it will linger long in the palette. It restores your faith in cinema.
Read Q&A with Director Pawel Pawlikowski
There are further screenings of Cold War, followed by a Q&A, at Curzon Bloomsbury 31 July and Curzon Oxford 30 July.
Members’ previews are available on 25, 26 and 27 August at various Curzon cinemas.
For Close-up Culture’s review of Apostasy please click here.