Music is integral to Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s masterful new film about the amour fou shared by an ethnomusicologist and a budding singer during the 1940s and 1950s. The follow-up to 2013’s Ida (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film), Pawlikowski’s latest is a rapturously tumultuous romance set to the sounds of Polish folk songs and Parisian jazz, and its tone is epitomized by a particular tune—“Dwa Serduszka” (“Two Hearts”)—that reoccurs, in different forms, throughout its decades-spanning tale.
“I knew it from this folk ensemble which I grew up with,” says the 61-year-old Pawlikowski about the theme to Cold War, which earned him the Best Director prize at Cannes. “They played a lot of that stuff on Polish radio. This song was beautiful, but it also lent itself to all sorts of adaptations. The melody line worked as a simple peasant song sung by the little girl at the beginning, it worked as this folk-ensemble thing, and then it worked as a jazz song in Paris, adapted by a friend of mine who’s a great musician. And the lyrics were more or less like most of these folk songs—about love and separation and obstacles.”
While that might be true, the song’s most pointed line—“You cannot be together”—is ideal for Cold War, which concerns an affair between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an older musical director scouring the countryside for salt-of-the-earth performers who’ll form a folk troupe, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young beauty who wiggles her way into an audition, hides her dubious past, and thoroughly mesmerizes Wiktor with her radiant voice and formidable charisma. Before long, they’re deliriously mad for each other, although that doesn’t mean they’re fated to live happily ever after; on the contrary, over the course of the next decade, they’re constantly pulled apart and pushed back together by the political circumstances of communist Poland (where the ensemble soon becomes a propaganda tool of the government), as well as by their fiery ardor.
Shot like Ida in lustrous black-and-white and a boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and also taking place in Czechoslovakia and Paris, where Wiktor falls in with a jazz band and eventually helps launch Zula’s career, Cold War is a love story defined by separation and reunion, conflict and harmony, and borders of a figurative and literal nature. It’s also a deeply personal work for Pawlikowski, whose parents were the inspiration for Wiktor and Zula. Specifically, the director sought to capture “the dynamics of this very disruptive relationship that spanned different countries and other marriages. After all the dust settled—they divorced other people, they betrayed each other many times, left the country separately, and then rejoined in the West—they were a lovely couple. It was an amazing love story.”
He continues, “Their on-and-off relationship lasted forty years. For me, they became kind of the ultimate love story. It looked disastrous most of the time, but in the end, they realized that they had just each other, and that they were the man and woman of each other’s lives. The world changes, time goes by, politics change, countries change, but they just have each other. It was very moving.”
Though you’d suspect an Oscar would have facilitated this acclaimed romance’s path to the screen, Pawlikowski says Cold War was something of a tough sell—especially given that, after having made three projects in England (Last Resort, My Summer of Love and The Woman in the Fifth), he was once again working in his native Poland, having moved back to Warsaw six years ago. “If I was doing it in English, or French even, or Spanish, it would have been easier. In Polish, it’s kind of a difficult language to do it in, commercially,” he confesses. Moreover, “the budget was not straightforward—we had like 15-16 small sources of money. So no, doing it wasn’t much easier—an obliquely-told Polish film, in black-and-white, with subtitles.”
Still, his prior triumph gave him confidence to follow his artistic impulses. “With Ida, I really thought I was making it for a very small audience. It seemed like professional suicide to most of my friends,” he laughs. “I thought, what do I have to lose? I’m old enough, my kids are out of my hair, I don’t have to make money. I’ll just make exactly the film I want to make, and I won’t worry. And I want to make it in Poland, because that’s where I’m headed—imagination-wise, I’m stuck in the past in Poland. So I made it, and it was a success, and [now with Cold War], I said, OK, anything goes, I can tell this story!”
Central to Cold War’s electricity are its two lead performances, and in particular, the magnetic turn by Kulig, who also appeared in Pawlikowski's The Women in the Fifth and Ida. From the moment he first saw her, the director knew, like Wiktor does with Zula, that she was different from the rest.
“I met her about nine years ago for the first time, for a film that never happened, and she was extraordinary then,” he recalls. “When she came into the room, it was like some light appeared. She hadn’t done much work at all then; she was still at theater school. I remember her personality was so particular, and charming, and genuine, I just kind of believed her. She felt timeless; she didn’t feel as if she was a woman of today. She could have been in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, whenever. I like that in films—when you’re not so defined by this mimicry of today.”
To capture his protagonists’ can’t-live-together, can’t-live-apart connection, Pawlikowski, never one for traditional rehearsals, intensely collaborated with his leads in order to make sure they fully inhabited their roles. “I keep rewriting the script all the time, and I’d bring them back for script meetings, just to imagine it with them in the room, and to hear the dialogue from their mouths,” he explains. “Wanting to immerse them in the world of the film. So for six months prior to filming, they had no other jobs. They were basically preparing for this.”
For Kulig, that groundwork entailed dancing with the folk troupe that Zula joins at the beginning of the story. “She actually went twice a week to the headquarters and practiced choreography and steps. She’d never done dancing before, so that was a new thing. But spending time with them wasn’t just practical and useful in terms of learning steps and choreography, but in terms of entering the mindset of this folk ensemble, and this girl [Zula] who joined it—the collective spirit, the energy, and the solidarity among them. She became indistinguishable from them by spending time with them.”
Among other things, Cold War is one of the year’s most visually-ravishing films, marked by innumerable breathtaking compositions: a man standing beside a tree near a gone-to-seed church covered in snow; a trio of women sitting at a window at night; a man and a woman watching a party’s crowd while their backs are up against a mirror, which reflects the revelry scene for us. Despite such aesthetic splendor, however, Pawlikowski admits he does very little storyboarding ahead of time; rather, defining the look of a given project is more of a multi-stage process.
“We go location scouting and do a lot of photography, and if we find some good element of landscape or building, we then try to imagine what the best angle would be. There’s also a lot of research with my production designers into photography of the period. Not necessarily great photographers, but just locations—Paris garrets, or streets, or nightclubs, or scenes in Berlin,” he states. “[So] when you go to actually shoot it, you know more or less what the angle is. Still, you still kind of work the shot—frame it, and frame it, and reframe it, until you get the right composition.”
Cold War’s breathtaking style, which extends to an editorial structure that suggests missing information through unconventional cuts, is potent without ever feeling forced or fussy. The same is true of its political undercurrents, which to Pawlikowski are naturally wrapped up in its romance. “That’s why I made this story. Not because of the politics, but because the personal and the political are so intertwined,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know how to quantify where one begins and the other stops. Clearly, it would have been a different story without a Stalinist police state, and having to go into exile, and all of that. But the problems are not just caused by that—there are also the characters’ problems.”
A film of swoon-worthy passion and sorrow, Cold War is infused with longing for a profound passion that’s both essential and yet, in a sense, unsustainable. And if it’s nostalgic, it’s for a particular way of life, and love, that seems to have faded away. “I have nostalgia for a world where you look at each other, and every decision you make has huge consequences, and then if you don’t see each other, you don’t stop thinking about each other,” Pawlikowski muses. “Where you have to write letters or remember things, rather than having them at your beck and call.”