‘Cold War’ movie review: Love in a communist climate
Mark Kermode, Observer film critic/ The Guardian, UK
Paweł Pawlikowski’s love letter to his parents is a sweeping tale of passion and politics set in the shadow of the iron curtain
Paweł Pawlikowski won the best director award at Cannes in May for this sweepingly intimate love story about a star-crossed couple falling together and apart, through the iron curtain of postwar Europe. It is inspired by (and dedicated to) his parents, whom Pawlikowski has described as “the most interesting dramatic characters I’ve ever come across … both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster”.
Yet while screen lovers Wiktor and Zula share names and character traits with the film-maker’s mother and father, their individual narratives are fictional and allusive, taking us from the countryside of Poland to the streets of East Berlin, from Paris to Yugoslavia, over 15 turbulent years – crossing boundaries that are musical, geographical, political and ultimately existential. The result is a swooning, searing Polish-British-French co-production that unexpectedly put me in mind of Casablanca or La La Land as reimagined by Andrzej Wajda or Agnieszka Holland – a reminder of the fundamental things that apply, as time goes by.
We open in rural Poland, 1949, where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are recording folk songs – mournful tales of love, drink and hardship, raw and elemental. Under the banner of the “Mazurek ensemble” (inspired by the real-life Mazowsze troupe), they audition musicians and dancers to showcase the authentic sounds of Poland, ensuring that “No more will the art of the people go to waste!”
Into these auditions comes Zula (Joanna Kulig), an enigmatic young woman posing as a village girl who significantly performs not a Polish mountain tune but a song learned from a Russian movie. Irena detects “a bit of a con” but Wiktor is smitten by Zula, who is whispered to have killed her father (“He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference”). Soon Zula is one of the stars of Mazurek, unfazed by the authorities’ co-opting demands that they sing the praises of Stalin and agricultural reform. When Wiktor spies a chance to defect during a 1952 engagement in East Berlin, he begs Zula to come with him. But are her pragmatic priorities in sync with his western-leaning dreams?
Returning to the Academy-ratio black-and-white format of the Oscar-winning Ida, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s stunning images evolve from the carefully composed static frames of yore to more free-form movements that match the musical shifts of the tale. Just as the Mazowsze folk favourite Dwa serduszka (Two Hearts) mutates from a rural tune to a jazzy ballad, so Pawlikowski subtly negotiates a series of aesthetic key changes, mirroring the ebb and flow of this tumultuous love story. There’s a sustained tension between the concisely epic sweep of the narrative and boxy confinement of the 4×3 frame that perfectly matches the film’s twin themes of freedom and incarceration. A scene in which Zula dances drunkenly to the sounds of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock vibrantly captures that sense of liberation and entrapment intertwined.