Anyone who remembers the 1950s knows about the Cold War. While most of us in the U.S. enjoyed the prosperity of the post-World War II economic boom, much of the rest of the world struggled to recover from the worst armed conflict the world had experienced.
The problems were particularly dire in Eastern Europe. Not only did the people there have to deal with a battered landscape and lack of essential goods, they also had to cope with the repressive atmosphere of the Communist Soviet Union. And nowhere was the situation more dire than it was in Poland.
The year is 1949 and we are introduced to Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), a music director who is driving around rural Poland with two others. Their task is to find singers and dancers talented enough to join a troupe dedicated to preserving Polish folk traditions.
Among the many candidates is Zula (played by Joanna Kulig), a pretty blond whose good looks are matched by enough talent to win her Wiktor’s attention. And as the troupe finds its bearing, the two become a couple – though, for obvious reasons, they keep their mutual affection as secret as they can.
This occurs over years, though it seems to happen right away. Pawlikowski tells his story in a truncated fashion, in chapters marked by on-screen notations that note the passage of time. This is clearly intentional, though some viewers – this one among them – may find themselves wanting just a bit more context.
Because the story that Pawlikowski is telling, which he co-wrote, is no ordinary romance. While it may be unfair to say that the relationship between Wiktor and Zula is doomed, it certainly is one born of desperation – and in that sense, at least, it serves as a symbol of what many East Europeans faced in the 1950s and ’60s.
Tired of a government that is forcing him to direct performances that are growing more and more political – not completely forsaking Polish tradition but augmenting it with glorification of the Soviet leadership – Wiktor dreams of defecting to Paris. There, he figures, he will be free to pursue his music the way he wants.
But Zula isn’t as sure. And when he leaves, she stays behind – and so begins their decades-long affair, he in Paris but never completely French, she part of the troupe that tours internationally, but never completely fulfilled, both of them getting involved with others but just as unable to commit fully to anyone else as they are to break completely from each another.
Pawlikowski renders all this in the same kind of gorgeous black and white that he used in his 2013 film “Ida,” which won a Best Foreign Language Oscar. “Cold War” is a leading candidate to win him his second gold statuette.
Pawlikowski’s relationship with Oscar seems to be every bit as unbreakable as Wiktor’s is with Zula. Just maybe not as desperate. Or as sad.