The first images seen in Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest feature (which won the best director award at this year’s Cannes) are the dishevelled faces of three peasants facing down camera as they harmonise a tale of love lost, whilst being cautiously observed by a young bystander. This young bystander soon grows up to record these folk songs around Poland, before forming an academy for rural musicians hoping to capture the soulfulness found in the music of working men. Music provides a rare respite against a bitter winter and poor living conditions, while simultaneously serving a more existential purpose for our lead Wiktor (Tomas Kot).
Wiktor, by the time the academy opens is a young man with a need to bring traditional Polish music to an appreciative audience. But, in doing so meets the young and talented Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer with a certain “fire” that captivates him. From here their tragic love story told across ten years and 5 major cities begins to unfurl. A story which is told implicitly through emotive glances and the nature of the differing cities in place of weighty exposition. For example, one scene in 1950’s Eastern Berlin sees Wiktor standing by the roadside observing the impoverished lives of locals as his troupe performs an extravagant show in support of Stalin. In this scene we gain an understanding of Wiktor’s worldview, having grown up in poverty his frustration that the troupe is profiting while supporting a totalitarian state brings a sense of humanity that ensures an empathetic view throughout the runtime. However, Cold War does more than present his character as a tortured artist on the fringe of society. Instead, Zula comes as his inspiration initially before transforming into an obsession under the pretence of his soulmate.
For a film which is so heavily focused upon music in its plot, there is surprisingly sparse usage throughout. There is no score outside of live performances, and the film is stronger for this as the shift from meditative silence to loud live performances is arresting. Seeing the movement from traditional Polish folk, to propaganda, jazz, and early rock happen on screen also adds a natural sense of progression to changing trends and the intent of the music. The shift from live shows being used as cultural experiences to the simplistically pleasing nature of early rock, is a transition which takes its toll on Wiktor’s mental health and forms the secondary but equally engaging doomed romance present in the film.
As with Pawlikowski’s previous feature Ida, also shot by DoP Lukasz Zal, the film is presented in 1.37 :1 aspect ratio (also known as Academy Format) this boxy format allows for tight control over what’s in frame at any point. This develops an intimate atmosphere within the film through use of close and medium range shots focusing upon emotion and minute detailing in lieu of spectacle. For example, the folk peasants intro, where the dark shadows across their faces contrast the featureless whiteout of a harsh Polish winter. Shooting on 35mm similarly allows for small details such as this to take the foreground, only shifting in focus for establishing shots of each cityscape which succinctly allows for there to be an understanding of that area’s characteristics. Take for example the contrast between Poland’s blank bleakness to the sun beaten mountains of Yugoslavia. We only see the latter for approximately a quarter of an hour, but it is so separate visually from any previous locale that we immediately understand Wiktor’s feelings of isolation through one masterful sequence. Cold War is an unconventional love story; but with consistent technical excellence, strong performances and swift storytelling it deserves recognition as one of the most important in the genre.