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Cold War (2018) directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Love on both sides of the Iron Curtain

This historical tale of love, set in (as the title suggests) the early days of the Cold War, begins in Poland during the early 1950s. Tomasz Kot plays a pianist named Wiktor Warski who, alongside his colleague Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza), is charged with rounding up a group of young, female peasant folk singers in order to assemble a state-sponsored song and dance troupe. The brightest talent of the lot is the beautiful, flaxen-haired Zula Lichoń (Joanna Kulig). Wiktor is attracted to more than just her heavenly singing voice and, sure enough, they soon begin a passionate affair.

However, Polish state representatives begin to assert their inevitably more overbearing control over the content of their shows, insisting on propaganda songs which praise Stalin - complete with a huge background banner, depicting his image, being hoisted behind their stage show. When they are sent to East Berlin, Wiktor decides that it is time to make a break for the West and start a new life in Paris. While he tries to persuade Zula to join him, she has her doubts and ultimately decides to stay with the troupe.

The film picks up at various points over the years, following their respective careers on both sides of the Iron Curtain as well as a number of occasions when they decide to cross over to “the other side” and pick up where they left off. Even this incredible relationship, however, has its ups and downs.

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Cinema in its purest form

Cold War is one of those rare movies which you can enjoy merely as a sensory, magical experience while barely even contemplating the central story. The warm, monochrome sepia images and impeccably elaborate, slightly stylised period details combine with a wide array of musical styles (from peasant folk songs and choral, to jazz and 1950s pop) to give the film a unique romantic feel. It’s almost tempting to let this cinematic warm bath soak in, thus forgetting the darker aspects of the core story.

The real-life Cold War was a sad and divisive time for the European continent, especially for those suffering the repressive hardships of living eastwards behind the Iron Curtain, but also for those living in the West who enjoyed relationships with people on the other side. On surface level, the film seems to sideline the harsher political aspects, yet still manages to work them in via telling symbolism: the almost comedically chilling propaganda songs which the group has to sing (which remind one of those seen in news footage of present-day North Korea) and a brief glimpse of a hard labour camp which initially seems to resemble a WWII battlefront. However, the main focus is on the romantic relationship itself - and we all know how grim those can get even without geopolitical factors getting in the way, don’t we?

A fissure of friction opens up between the two because Zula is unable to fit in with her lover’s immersion in the more pretentious aspects of Parisian artistic society. There are also clues in some aspects in her own dark past; she tells Wiktor that she attacked her own father with a knife because, in her own words, “he mistook me for my mother, so I showed him the difference”. The more indomitable aspects of her personality ultimately result in her turning to Paris’s freely-available alcohol and starting to berate and taunt the love of her life. While Tomasz Kot gives a solid performance as the male half of this coupling, it’s Joanna Kulig who is the true star here. Her performance is a complex mix of the feisty and the vulnerable, of the sensual and the rage-filled.

Joanna Kulig in Cold War (2018)

The overarching feel of this film, however, is not that of depression and despair, but that of lower-level humanity and the human drive transcending and overriding gaping political disparities. It’s a truly emotive and passionate work - not in the sense of being manipulative but in the sense of a pure poetry and artistry which has gone into every single moment of screen time.

Runtime: 88 mins

Dir: Paweł Pawlikowski

Script: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki

Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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