Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War—an impassioned, minimalist memorial to the director’s late parents—tracks a torrid romance between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a mercurial composer, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer and dancer. The two meet in a small Polish village in 1949, when Wiktor is auditioning local girls for a folk troupe. Zula stands out not because her audition demonstrates a reverence for the folk traditions the ensemble is meant to promote, but because she transcends them, performing a spirited song from a Russian musical she saw when she was a girl. Wiktor falls in love with her almost instantly, ignoring his assistant’s warning that Zula “apparently killed her father,” and barreling into a relationship that spans 15 years and finds the couple moving apart and reconnecting again in Warsaw, Paris, and Yugoslavia.
As time moves onward, and the sociopolitical identity of Cold War-era Europe changes, so too does the music, from folk to jazz to early rock n’ roll. And Pawlikowski creates a crucial dynamic between the film’s two lovers and the burgeoning modernism that surrounds them: Wiktor eagerly changes with the times, while Zula is always a little ahead of them. This leads to Zula repeatedly acting out against him, as she periodically gives up whatever life she’s been leading in various pockets of time spent estranged from Wiktor and comes crashing back into his life, only to find that he can’t quite keep up with her. His jazz isn’t hot enough, his sexual attitudes too conservative. But at the same time, no one else comes as close as Wiktor to pleasing her.
Cold War is shot in the same impeccable black-and-white, full-frame Academy ratio as Pawlikowski’s 2014 film Ida, but this time the filmmaker engages his symmetrically balanced images as a canvas primed to be disrupted. The various carefully choreographed sequences of the Polish folk ensemble’s song-and-dance performances register almost imperceptibly as anachronistic: Zula’s dancing is just a little more loose-limbed than that of her stagemates, her facial expression a bit more solemn and melancholy as she sings a traditional folk song about a forbidden love. One early shot perfectly encapsulates the film’s vision of nascent, emerging modernity: Zula’s body bobs gently in a river, barely disturbing the water’s surface calm.
Nominally, the lovers in Cold War are forced apart by authoritarianism. Stalinist ideology exerts its power over great swaths of Europe, causing Wiktor to flee to Paris and become an artist in exile; later, he’s forcefully deported from Yugoslavia when his old superiors spot him at one of Zula’s performances. But implicit in Pawlikowski’s streamlined narrative is the feeling that forces more cosmic than sociological are at work in determining the trajectory of Zula and Wiktor’s lives. Another recurring image in the film—a remnant of an old artwork painted in a ruin, of a pair of massive, watchful eyes—seems to seal the fate of these lovers before their affair even begins, and Zula and Wiktor return to the site when their story reaches its conclusion.
It’s the precise calibration of narrative minimalism and aesthetic elementalism that makes Cold War so striking. It also breaks from the classicist formalism that Ida sometimes felt bound to replicating. But neither work conveys a great deal of emotional depth: While the narrative economy of Cold War is an impressive feat, it occasionally seems to rein in the expressive potential of Kulig’s phenomenal performance as Zula, hurrying through the various episodes of her developing social and cultural awareness and spending a little too much time wallowing with the less interesting Wiktor.
That leaves Cold War most exhilarating as a breathless vessel for mood, one that just so happens to conduct itself within reconstructed period settings that are as obsessively detailed as the reverently curated soundtrack. Just as much care is paid to the spectral spiritualism of old-world Polish folks songs as is to the sensual nightclub scenes where Wiktor plays jazz piano, or the carnal sequence where Zula becomes a whirling dervish when she hears “Rock Around the Clock.” If it’s an otherworldly fatalism that plots Zula and Wiktor’s course through life, their love for each other, so predicated on their obsession with the art that the sociopolitical climate of the time generally represses, distracts them from their oblivion. And while Pawlikowski’s meticulous presentation of their experience with this art doesn’t always translate to an understanding of their inner lives, it still carries an emotive power.