The life of an exile means being constantly torn between two worlds — the pleasures of a new place contrasted with nostalgia for home. Moving somewhere else may mean freedom, but that can come at the cost of losing your identity. This is the central ideal of Cold War, which asks if true love can survive a world that offers its protagonists little to no hope of living the life they want. Spanning from 1949 to 1964, it is a miniature epic that doubles up as a savaging critique of the Communist Regime. Shot in black and white in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, it is a true objet d’art that is nonetheless baffling in its characterisation.
Cold War tells is a story of two lost souls in a country they love, but which has not been designed for them. This is post-War communist Poland, a land ruled by fear and suspicion. It starts with folk music and two composers looking for local talent to enroll in their academy. Hundreds of rural singers are soon shipped to an old building to audition for a new folk choir. The head of recruitment is Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a man who is instantly taken with the spunky Zula (Joanna Kulig). Rumours abound that she killed her father, and when he asks her about it, she simply says that he mistook her for her mother and she wanted to show him the difference. Together they fall deeply in love, but are constantly torn apart by forces that they cannot control.
The choir is an instant success, playing in concert halls all over Warsaw. Yet, as the bureaucracy of the communist regime takes over, the higher-ups prefer songs about Stalin and agricultural reform instead of those about love and the coming of the spring. When Wiktor finds out that Zula has to report about him to her superiors, he decides he has had enough, crossing over to the other side on a trip to Berlin. Zula was supposed to join him, but something (we never find out!) holds her back, and she becomes a star in her native country. They will meet again over the years — in Paris, Yugoslavia, and Poland again — but with something always getting in the way of their being together.
Between this film and Ida, Pawe? Pawlikowski — working in tandem with director of photographer ?ukasz ?al — clearly prefers a box-like frame with uncluttered yet deeply expressively imagery. Crucial to this is the use of soft focus, which constantly alerts us to where we should be looking in each shot. As a work of formal beauty, this is a step up from Ida, deploying fluid camerawork to create a more deeply felt story. These images are complemented well by the musical pieces, spanning from traditional folk music to propaganda songs to bebop jazz; the music serves as a perfect aural corollary to the themes on display.
Cold War is a marvel to look at and perhaps even better to listen to, yet when you start to think about it, it becomes a real head-scratcher. Pawel Pawlikowski is evidently far more interested in the beauty of his images than providing genuine motivation for his characters. This is only compounded by the time jumps that occur without warning between the years. This is initially thrilling, promising an grand tale of love throughout the ages across the whole of Europe, but after a while this elision only serves to hold us back from the emotional effect of the story. Additionally, as most psychology in the film is implied rather than explained, it becomes hard to sympathise with characters that continuously make dreadful decisions.
We are given the impression that our protagonists are given no options, but the literal film itself shows us that they can make positive choices if they actually want to. This grim determinism, spanning fifteen years from 1949 to 1964, is obviously a metaphor for the horrors of the communist regime, yet this reduces the characters themselves to metaphors in the process. With such brilliant actors in the two main roles, this feels like a waste of their talents, giving them an ending that seems to be bleak just for the sake of it. Cold War is an improvement on Ida, which was an imitation of an art film instead of an actual work of cinema, but by the end Pawlikoswki once again plumps for cheap moments that mistake shock value for genuine emotion and character development.