Time doesn’t matter when you are in love.
It’s critical to know that writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski loosely based his main characters in Zimna wojna [Cold War] on their namesakes: his parents. To know he acknowledges the fact that they were destructive together and lovesick apart makes the way in which the fictional Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) interact easier to accept since they aren’t necessarily “good” people. They’re selfish, headstrong, and opportunistic. They constantly take via a consciously knowing means of manipulation and grow frustrated when things don’t work out quite to plan. At a certain point during the film one can be heard lamenting their present fate with, “What have we done?” And while it initially gave me pause because one seemingly carries more fault than the other, I realized neither was innocent.
Co-written by Janusz Glowacki, the plot begins with these two “loves of their lives” meeting under unlikely circumstances. Wiktor is the conductor of a project co-run with fellow musician Irena (Agata Kulesza) and bottom-line political stooge Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). They’ve taken it upon themselves to travel the Polish countryside circa 1949 to find singers, dancers, and instrumentalists able to rekindle a sense of national pride through traditional folk songs left beautiful and untouched by the destruction of the war. Zula is one such artist—albeit rumored to be pretending she’s more folksy and impoverished than the truth may reveal. She doesn’t have the best voice of those discovered, but her electric presence catches Wiktor’s eye to work with her until she’s both the company’s star and his lover.
Life is grand for two years. Not only has Wiktor and Irena changed Kaczmarek’s heart as far as the music’s value to achieve the government’s goals, the chance to travel abroad is also presented. And here lies the first of many pivotal moments in Wiktor and Zula’s romance. A minister presents an ultimatum to the group: if they want his financial and political support, they must start singing songs about Stalin’s communist regime and its strength to carry them towards prosperity. Irena is vehemently against it while Kaczmarek sees its potential to highlight his unwavering loyalty. Wiktor on the other hand remains silent. He goes with the plan because it allows him to keep his head down. Zula agrees because singing has given her a life.
But there’s more to this choice than meets the eye since the film’s title isn’t simply a metaphor. This setting carries with it a history of injustice and oppression and both those things must come into play to risk tearing Wiktor and Zula apart. She really does enjoy what she’s doing. She has a career, popularity, and a man for which she would do anything. There’s a reason he wants to keep his head down, though. He sees this group as a means for escape. If Kaczmarek can win them a concert in Berlin, Wiktor could feasible defect and make his way to Paris in order to start life anew away from communism. Hoping to bring Zula with him, he delivers an ultimatum she’s not ready to accept.
And thus commences a journey spanning over a decade of starts and stops where their love is concerned. They try creating new lives to achieve happiness and to keep the other away and out of the trouble that could arise if they were ever to cross paths again. Their feelings for each other aren’t something that can disappear, though. So they long for a reunion, take risks to meet if only for a stolen kiss, and eventually find a second chance at living together. Since second chances can never be perfect under these circumstances, their love becomes tested even more when physical proximity exposes a chasm between philosophical desires. Zula has chosen Wiktor over her music and he still wants both—no matter the compromise to his ideals.
This is where things can get shaky narratively speaking. While Cold War is a gorgeous document of a devastating historical period shot in black and white with a full-frame aspect ratio cinematographer Lukasz Zal excels with to an even grander result than his last collaboration with Pawlikowski (Ida), the characters make it difficult to retain empathy. The way Wiktor has changed (or perhaps the way he’s been allowed to reveal who he really is away from Russia’s totalitarian thumb) proves irredeemable. He sees Zula as an avenue towards fame and fortune in a capitalist society and pushes her into following that thinking while intentionally ignoring her own desires. Wiktor shows that he’s willing to destroy his love in order to give her what he believes she should want.
And while that makes us applaud her response, it’s not long before she takes up the mantle of monster herself. Rather than destroy Wiktor to retain their shared love, however, Zula proves that she’ll connive her way into destroying everyone else for it. What was a document of love enduring against all odds becomes one of love’s corruptibility. It gets to the point where I lost all desire for a happy ending and yet also found Pawlikowski’s tragic conclusion faulty since it was based on ego and greed rather than heart. Only upon learning these two figures are stand-ins for the same type of volatility his parents ignited did I realize this might be intentional. He’s delivered an exposé on love’s power to blind us to everything else.
This isn’t therefore a love letter as much as a depiction of a truth too many forget. Where Hollywood romances present examples of “true love” that inspire through how it makes everyone swoon, Pawlikowski draws attention to the collateral damage. He shows how we treat others as disposable when they get in the way of what we feel—including our lover him/herself. Both Wiktor and Zula become masters of their domain, oppressive dictators traveling along paths towards their individual happiness without ever caring about the other outside of the assumption that togetherness is enough. Theirs is a romance destined to fail yet impossible to forget. And in the end their most selfish act of all might in fact be selfless in freeing those they’ve abused for too long.
Photos by Lukasz Bak