Pawel Pawlikowski’s film – about the long and turbulent relationship of a couple of star-crossed lovers in post-war Poland – is a little gem. Ravishingly shot in high contrast black and white by Lukasz Zan, and projected in a squarish ratio that serves to accentuate the period look, this somehow manages to feel like an epic movie, despite boasting a modest running time of just under 90 minutes. Based on the story of the director’s own parents, it’s a delightful evocation of a lost age.
It’s 1949 and musician Wiktor (Thomasz Kot) and his broadcaster girlfriend, Irena (Agata Kulesza), are travelling the backroads of Poland, searching for local talent to recruit for a touring production that will celebrate Polish folk music. At one of the auditions, Wiktor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a headstrong and talented young singer who is determined to be one of the production’s stars. Irena clearly doesn’t care for Zula, who has a rather troubled past – but Wiktor is immediately smitten by her charms and it’s not long before the two of them are engaged in a passionate affair.
The subsequent musical production becomes a great success, but Wiktor and Irena are dismayed when pressure is exerted upon the company to include songs that extoll the virtues of Josef Stalin. On a visit to East Berlin, Wiktor decides to take the opportunity to defect to the West and begs Zula to accompany him. She doesn’t go, but their paths are destined to cross, again and again, as the 1950s unfold…
Featuring enigmatic performances from the two leads and set in a whole series of European locations, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the self-destructive power of the couple’s extended liaison, as they meet, part and meet again. There’s an extraordinary sequence in a Paris jazz club, where a bored and moody Zula is suddenly enervated by the playing of Rock Around the Clock and leaps up to cavort drunkenly around the dance floor. It’s a lovely scene but it’s also an era defining moment, the proclamation of the huge changes that are soon to come, for Wiktor and Zula and, indeed, the world.
The intensity of the couple’s love ultimately has tragic ramifications, which – though deeply affecting – are never allowed to become sentimental. It’s easy to see why Cold War was awarded the ‘best director’ gong at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, though it’s doubtless been said many times before, they really don’t make films like this any more. Except of course, in this case, they have.
It most likely won’t be showing at your local multiplex, but if there’s an independent cinema near you, do seek this one out – it’s a delight from start to finish.