Filmmaking has been described as going to war, and for rising actor Sam Smith, scoring the big break of a lead role in Benjamin Gilmour’s Jirga, saw him travel to the war-ravaged streets of Afghanistan to make the acclaimed film.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are Polish musicians trying make ends meet after the fallout of the Second World War in 1949. Wiktor, a quiet man with a composing background, makes ends meet by auditioning talent for a travelling music troupe. Zula, a little more outspoken, is a struggling young woman with aspirations to be a singer. Zula was also accused of trying to murder her father. They meet at an audition. So, begins Pawel Pawlikowksi slowly lyrical romance, Cold War, the follow-up to his 2014 film Ida, also shot in black-and-white.
Filmed in a boxed 4:3 ratio, Cold War’s compositions and aspect ratio often feel like a prison. Neither can escape their lives, their country, their past – each other.
It is not just the framing of Cold War which is typified by an undercurrent of claustrophobia and silence – it’s the atmosphere of Cold War Poland, it’s in the lovers’ feelings about their homeland, their looks.
The film uses dialogue sparingly. Recalling other minimalist European works of the ‘50s (Dreyer, Bresson); the romance trails the constricted courtship of the two lovers from 1949 through to the ‘60s, as they change partners, cities, attitudes.
Wiktor flees Poland illegally for upbeat Paris to become part of the burgeoning art scene – seeing the rise of Jazz and Cinema. Zula stays with the music company, travelling around Europe but still living in depressed Poland.
Pawlikowksi flashes forward in time; Wiktor is a successful composer for films. Zula goes on to marry an Italian, become a recorded singer, have an album released, and eventually even a child.
Still they think of each other.
At each and every point, every few years, the couple reacquaint themselves, spend a few nights together, talk about their partners, separate, forlornly vow to see each other again.
It is a passion rekindled and marked by music. Pawlikowksi uses the device as a token of their relationship. It is the only respite they get. This is in a number of scenes, nearly giving the film the feel of a musical.
But despite how free and divergent they are, away from the spectre of worse times in Poland, both lovers’ lives are still empty. There’s a longing.
There are no ‘big’ scenes. This is not a grandly made epic. There are no bursts of laughing and elation. Shot by Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal, Cold War’s photography is spare. The film is populated by quietness, looks, stares.
The compositions are subtle. The only thing that punctures this, is music.
There are unanswered questions in Pawlikowksi’s film. Why the two don’t get together at all costs when they can – multiple times – is never quite addressed. Why didn’t Zula join Wiktor and go to Paris, instead choosing Poland, when she could have? Perhaps they can’t quite bring themselves to leave their pasts.
The film was loosely based on the director’s family. Pawlikowksi leaves audiences with a note at the end – For My Parents.
This is a softly played musical contemplation of life in the midst of a harsh life, which is vibrantly on-song.