Cold War is a treat for the senses
Terrifically told love story that’s delicious on the eye and ear, probes post-war sense of loss felt by displaced millions
05 September, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in Cold War
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
THE use of black and white film in modern cinema provides the director with two tricks: it is used either to transport the viewer back in time or to create something striking and aesthetically pleasing, a comfort for the senses, acting as a shield against the Technicolor bombardment of today. Recent films that have combined these elements to great effect include The Artist, Schindler’s List, A Field In England and La Haine.
Anglo-Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski has used this technique to take us back to the immediate post-war period, and offer a film delicious on the eye and ear – but painful to the heart. An opening scene acts as a harbinger of what is to come. It is a marriage of music and image, with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) in a rickety truck, zig-zagging through snow-covered, dirt-poor villages, waving microphones under the noses of singers and musicians, a reel-to-reel recorder committing the sound to tape. We are not told who the recorders are, and no introduction is given to the musicians. Instead, the collusion of intriguingly intense faces matched to equally interesting people draws us gently in.
It is 1948. Wiktor is a musical director who has been charged by the Polish government – now in the USSR – to create a national folk troupe, who will preserve the music and dance traditions of the nation and raise spirits.
With project apparatchik Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), they set up house in a snow-flecked, war-damaged stately home and start auditioning singers.
Zula (Joanna Kulig) appears and her looks and voice strike Wiktor. They start an affair as they work together, touring Soviet cities with the show. When they reach east Berlin, Wiktor sees the chance to defect and for them to start a new life in Paris – an offer Zula declines to follow up.
The course of true love cannot run smoothly, and our two characters have enough complexities to ensure this is never going to happen. Tied into this are further complications, caused by a sense of statelessness and oppression.
Paris provided a place for black American jazz musicians such as Sidney Bechet to be treated as equals – and their genius recognised. They added to the city’s own jazz tradition, which saw the likes of Django Reinhardt perform. Into this sphere Wiktor appears – we see him through a haze of cigarette smoke in semi-deserted bars and clubs, where late-night waitresses absentmindedly wipe tables around artists with permanent frowns. To press the point about the life Wiktor has made for himself, his home is a sparsely furnished garret. You can feel the Paris that Orwell wrote about 30 years earlier.
Wiktor’s dreams are haunted by the woman left behind, and Pawlikowski summons up the sense of rootlessness. This individual embodies the deep sense of loss the millions of displaced people felt in the aftermath of the Second World War, as described by Primo Levi.
And while jazz is used as a sign of the west and modernity, the music from the east is just as brilliant, beautiful and enthralling.
Cold War is not just a terrifically told love story, a drama that stretches across political landscapes that shows how society’s structures impact on the individual, it captures you through its music, too.