Post-war romance Cold War glows with borderless passion

by James Robins / 08 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Cold War movie

In post-war Poland, a film-maker reimagines his parents finding romance among the ruins.

There is no more austere a setting for a film than post-war Poland. The country that suffered greatly last century lends itself to stark atmospheres. The scenery is already black and white, after all. But it’s from the ruins that Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski (Ida) conjures up a vibrant, tumultuous romance, an ode to his parents and their escape from Stalinism: love in the coldest climate.

In 1949, a handsome composer named Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) travels the countryside recording the folk songs of peasants, which range from tunes of lost love to ditties about the pub. As one character describes it, “The music of pain and humiliation. And joy, too, even if through tears.” Into his project walks Zula (Joanna Kulig), an almost ethereal beauty possessed of an exquisite voice. An affair blossoms instantly.

A travelling theatre show develops. The new Soviet authorities, of course, take note, turning it into a farce – a propaganda hour for ethnic chauvinism and the “World Proletariat”. It takes them to divided Berlin, and the possibility of escape. Wiktor goes, but Zula cannot.

What follows are fractured episodes of yearning and reconciliation. Snatched kisses and fights in the street. Paris. Belgrade. Back to Poland. Their ardour spans a soundtrack of rich orchestras and the electrifying first riffs of rock’n’roll, all told in gorgeous, pristine, stately monochrome cinematography.

Wiktor remains unchanged – just as adoring as when we found him – but it’s Zula who morphs from a coolly determined survivor into the most seductive and entrancing of chanteuses.

In reality, the story of Pawlikowski’s parents is more mundane and straightforward. But there is no sense of nostalgia in Cold War, no inkling that things have been remembered more fondly than they were. The spark and flash of their betrayals and separations have all been retained, reimagined through the director’s vision.

It’s a relationship with the barbed wire and high walls kept in. Through the black and white, against an iron sky, Cold War glows with borderless passion.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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