Paweł Pawlikowski’s 85-minute-long black and white Cold War (Zimna wojna / 2018) is laser-focused on its story, the tortured, romantic-to-the-hilt relationship between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the thing that both unites and confines them: music. The ending suggests that a truly lasting love exists only after specific commonalities end. But the script, by Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, and Piotr Borkowski, hints and signifies rather than expressing or emoting. We love the leads not because we know them, but because they’re gorgeous.
In 1949, Wiktor is part of a team in Communist Poland that records local folk songs, adapts them into formal pieces, and recruits and trains a troupe of young people to sing and dance them—among whom Zula catches his eye. Their romance begins after the premiere and never really ends. They’re soul mates, even when Zula is afraid to cross to West Berlin with him, even when she later lives with him in Paris but chooses to return to Poland, and even when Wiktor, chasing after her, gets locked up in a gulag. At one point, in Paris and jealous of Wiktor’s former lover there before her arrival, Zula swigs from a vodka bottle and says to herself, I shit you not, “Fuck it, I love him, so he can do whatever he wants.”
The problem lies in that “return to Poland.” Why does she go? The film gives her just one line, “In Poland you were a man; here [in Paris] you’re just another sycophant,” and a silent argument between them revolving around it. It’s true: Wiktor was the composer and pianist of the musical troupe, but in Paris he has to hustle like anyone else, maybe moreso given his lack of contacts as an exile. There’s a complex knot here tying together the strands of exile, alienation, power (Wiktor the teacher, Zula the pupil), taboo (longing to cross the Iron Curtain), and attraction, but the film’s quick jump from life in Paris to Zula’s abrupt return makes it awfully easy to graft on the trope of “getting what you wanted, unfortunately.” This could’ve been avoided with just a few more snippets of everyday life in the foreign land.
But that’s the only issue I have with the film. The acting is nuanced and heartfelt, the visuals (by Łukasz Żal) sumptuous and thoughtful, and the music simply ravishing, be it folk tune or melancholic jazz.