Giving the lie to its frigid title, “Cold War” smolders and even burns with the gorgeous, intoxicating atmosphere of star-crossed romance.
Passionate, tempestuous, haunting and assured, this latest from writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski explores, as did his Oscar-winning “Ida,” Poland’s recent past, resulting in a potent emotional story with political overtones that plays impeccably today.
Greatly admired at Cannes, where Pawlikowski took home the director prize, “Cold War” also dominated the recent European Film Awards (winning for film, director, actress and others) and has emerged as a strong rival for “Roma” in this year’s foreign language Oscar race.
Set between 1949 and 1964, at the height of the East-West political standoff that gives it its name, “Cold War” stars top Polish actors Tomasz Kot and the knockout Joanna Kulig as a tempestuous duo whose emotions are so large and so contradictory they could be characters in an opera.
Yet so assured is Pawlikowski’s direction, so convincing are the performances and so involving is Lukasz Zal’s gorgeous black and white cinematography (shot, as was “Ida,” in the old-school film academy screen ratio) that the entire story unfolds with a happening-right-in-front-of-us immediacy that is dazzling.
Adding an extra element to this potent mix are the last three words seen on-screen: “For my parents.”
Set on both sides of the Iron Curtain, “Cold War” is a dramatization of the beyond-tumultuous personal history of the director’s mother and father. He’s even given the protagonists his parents’ first names, Wiktor and Zula.
“As a teenager, I thought my parents were something to be embarrassed about, but as an adult, I think they were the most interesting people I’ve ever known,” the director said in an interview at Cannes.
“Their love story in Warsaw and London was very complicated. Marriage, betrayal, divorce, marriage again, divorce again. And they died just before the Berlin Wall came down.”
“Cold War” begins well before that, in 1949, as three people make their way across the frozen wastes of Poland’s postwar hinterlands.
Ethnomusicologists Wiktor (Kot, one of Poland’s top actors) and Irena (Agata Kulesza, “Ida’s” troubled aunt) and Communist Party apparatchik Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) are united in their search for obscure, often cacophonous “music of the people.”
Next stop is a former grand estate now transformed into a music academy, a place where the trio will be polishing melodies, “the music of your grandparents, the music of pain and humiliation,” and auditioning young performers for the dancing and singing folk ensemble troupe Mazurek (based on the real Polish group Mazowsze).
“No more,” thunders Kaczmarek, who barely believes in the project, “will the talents of the people go to waste.”
Getting off the bus as a potential singer is Zula, played with incendiary charisma and an eye for the main chance by Kulig. Her electrifying performance as a femme fatale both ambitious and gifted, a kind of blond-braided Heidi with a come-hither look, immediately kicks “Cold War” into a higher gear.
Knowing that getting into Mazurek is her only chance out of a dead-end life, Zula expertly maneuvers herself into the best possible position for inclusion. Not that any great subterfuge is necessary. Zula not only turns out to be a kind of Slavic It Girl, someone whose energy, talent and charisma are undeniable, but she and Wiktor also are unmistakably drawn to one another, with results both ecstatic and catastrophic.
On the one hand, “Cold War” leaves no doubt that Wiktor and Zula are truly, madly, deeply in love. But actually getting along day to day is another story.
Not only do they both have volatile artistic temperaments (Kot spent months learning piano and Kulig took on folk dancing) but Wiktor’s tortured aestheticism and Zula’s wary pragmatism are also bound to clash.
And that doesn’t take into account the directives and imperatives of Poland’s ruling Communist Party, determined to enforce not only where but also even how people are allowed to live.
Party line politics first emerge after Mazurek’s successful Warsaw debut. Very nice, a government minister says, but what if in addition to genuine folk melodies, songs were added about the virtues of land reform and the genius of Stalin? No problem, says Kaczmarek and, already intoxicated with Zula, Wiktor goes along for the ride.
Part of the incentive for Wiktor getting more political is concert performances in Prague, Moscow, even Berlin, where in these pre-Wall days, simply walking across to the Western side is still possible.
Wiktor, hungry for the artistic freedom the West represents, is desperate to go; Zula, not surprisingly, is not so sure. It is the business of “Cold War” to passionately play out this push-pull dynamic over more than a dozen years in several cities on both sides of the divide.
Given “Cold War’s” emotional and narrative complexity, it’s a measure of how meticulously made it is that the film clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
Working closely with cinematographer Zal, Pawlikowski has pared away extraneous story moments and seen to it that the dazzling cinematography and ardent acting are in perfect balance.
Performed music is obviously central to “Cold War,” as well as an example of the care with which it is put together. Though you might not notice, key songs are heard three different ways: primitive folk versions, uptempo Mazurek productions and jazzy Parisian ballads. It’s as exciting as it sounds.
Finally, however, “Cold War” succeeds because of its compelling portrait of a volatile relationship, an examination of what we do for love and what love won’t do for us. It’s a tale that’s been told before, and more than once, but this film makes it light up the screen like it’s the very first time.
Mostly in Polish, with English subtitles
Running time: 89 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles