Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is sparse in all the best ways. No one stops to explain who our leads are or what guides them; you may not even catch their names until you’re a good 30 minutes in. What you’re left with is holes, gradually filled in by decade-spanning events and context and the understanding that these are two lovers who may never be happy but strive for it anyway. It’s a simple story; the best ones usually are.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the director of a traveling Polish musical group in the aftermath of World War II; Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a teenage singer who catches his eye. Though they start out gathering and performing folk songs from Poland’s rural towns, they’re eventually pressed into serving their Soviet rulers. Rather than croon about Stalin, Wiktor decides to leave; Zula chooses to stay. We then follow the two as they pursue each other for 20-odd years, with the specter of a stifling regime constantly hanging over their heads.
This is essentially a two-character film, though troupe manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) appears sporadically to reassert the vigilance of Soviet control. Any lingering threats are silent but pervasive; even when a post-fleeing Wiktor is caught watching the group perform outside of Poland, Kaczmarek’s men merely send him back to France. Murder doesn’t seem to be in the cards, but obedience is key; if you’re not in, stay out. And when the person you love is on the other side, unsure about where they belong, it can feel like death anyway.
As with his breakthrough film Ida, Cold War is shot in black and white. I couldn’t even imagine it in color; the story practically begs for desaturation. The music provides a lot of the emotion; the songs go from swelling and beautiful to sad and debilitating, none more devastating than Zula eventually singing with a faux-mariachi band. For these two artists, music is an escape and a way to survive; it certainly keeps them upright when “lesser” citizens would’ve been deemed an inessential inconvenience. But just as being apart can be hell, so can being compelled to perform for your life.
Kot and Kulig are both brilliant, especially in early scenes when they are young and their characters are purposefully undefined. Though even an aging Zula vacillates between faux maturity and child-like tantrums, Kulig radiates a natural magnetism that makes everyone’s attraction to her easy to understand. And Wiktor seems actively opposed to trouble yet unable to stay out of it; without much dialogue, Kot slowly unveils a man who hasn’t wanted for much but eventually embraces the need to sacrifice it all.
In Cold War, Pawlikowski may have crafted the definitive depiction of the way a homeland can drag you down. Wiktor recognizes Poland’s oppressive nature more clearly than Zula, but he’s older and also has suffered fewer personal hardships. Being a man in 1950s Europe also naturally grants him additional unfair breathing room. She’s trying to survive; he has flexibility. It’s only when he returns home—and suffers greatly for her in the process—does she finally regard the two as equal. While he’s reinvented himself in Paris, she can’t find happiness in what she’s expected to become. She can’t find happiness in Poland either, but at least they can meet in the middle before reaching the end. It’s a shocking conclusion, but a natural one that both characters accept willingly.
At 85 minutes, this is as swift and efficient as a powerful drama gets. Much like the unsympathetic era he’s revisiting, Pawlikowski leaves no room for extraneous meandering. He propels everything forward and asks his audience to pick up bits and pieces as they come in, trusting that scarcity will create depth. As with many great auteurs, it does in spades.