Director Pawel Pawlikowski‘s “Cold War” is a melancholy anti-romance that’s filled with as much heartbreak as passion. The love story between a woman and an older man is one that you’ve seen many times onscreen before, but there’s something about the stark black and white visuals and the sparse narrative that deliver a bittersweet emotional punch.
Set in post-war Poland, the story begins in 1949 when Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is searching the countryside for talented young singers to join a music troupe. Wiktor is smitten by Zula (Joanna Kulig) the second he sees her, and a romance quickly blossoms. Despite their age difference, their different temperaments and contrasting backgrounds, the two are mismatched but hopelessly in love.
As their show has them traveling to different cities to perform their cultural song and dance routine, political ideology begins to force its way into the art. What was meant to highlight the authentic sounds of Poland becomes a showcase for authorities to control the content, including strongly suggesting pro-Stalin songs be added to the repertoire. Because of this, Wiktor decides he’s had enough and convinces Zula to defect to the West with him. She reluctantly agrees, but doesn’t show up at the last minute. So Wiktor leaves by himself.
The rest of the film is a tale of heartbreak that spans two decades. Their love never fades, but Zula and Wiktor spend twenty years trying to change each other. The love is there, but sometimes they can’t stand each other. Over the years their paths manage to cross in varying cities and locales, but they always seem to be trying to escape and run away from everything, no matter where they are. What’s so sad about it all is that they’re trapped and continually separated by circumstance, flaws, and politics. Even sadder is the bleakness of the romance between these two broken lovers.
Pawlikowskil chooses to advance his storytelling with music more than plot. The pared down story is as simple as they come, and the haunting soundtrack of classic folk songs, jazz, and even American rock and roll does much of the heavy lifting. Much of the credit goes to the actors too, a pair with unparalleled chemistry and, even with the narrow-focused storytelling. The range and depth of the performances are astounding. So much is said with so little, in terms of both dialogue and simple gestures.
The film is gorgeous to look at, reading like an art exhibit with its carefully framed scenes and spectacular use of light and shadow. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal is a genius with the monochrome palette. The boxy aspect ratio and choice to film in black and white complements the film’s themes of the desire of self expression through art even while limited by restrictive government regimes.
This film is as profound as it is personal, a tragic look at a sad, ill-fated romance that’s doomed by both passion and politics.