Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War is an epic in miniature, a story that spans more than a decade in the lives of two people and is set against the most tumultuous period in 20th-century Europe, and yet runs less than 90 minutes. It's remarkable how much feeling, human nature and history he captures in that short amount of time, and it never feels rushed.
The story begins in 1949 Poland, which is still reverberating from WWII. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist at what can best be described as a music academy specializing in Polish folk songs and dances. One of his pupils, a singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig), catches his eye, and they begin an affair as they tour the country with a big variety show. The performances quickly take a pro-Communist bent, and before long Zula is singing in front of a portrait of Stalin, much to the chagrin of the instructors.
At a show in East Berlin, Wiktor hatches a plan to escape to Paris with Zula, but she never shows up at their meeting point. It's the first of many separations that define their relationship, but they keep managing to find their way back to one another. Cold War, then, is structured like a series of blackouts, each chapter detailing their encounters over the years, from France to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again. Their musical careers rise and fall, the world around them crumbles and thrives again, and yet their destinies remain entwined. Pawlikowski isn't so much concerned with the details of how the couple returns to one another; it's about the electricity and volatility of their time together.
Much of that time is spent deliberately trying to hurt the other, openly flaunting their other lovers, picking fights, poking at wounds that haven't healed. It's only when they're performing that their feelings are expressed most clearly, their angers and frustrations and desires flowing through the music — when Zula cuts loose in a nightclub as "Rock Around the Clock" blares over the speakers, or as a despondent Wiktor hammers away at a piano solo while the rest of his band looks on.
Pawlikowski has said that Zula and Wiktor's love affair was inspired by his parents' on-again, off-again relationship, even using their names for the characters. Although the specific details of their lives are different (his father was a doctor, his mother a literature professor), he captures the tempestuousness of two fiercely independent and yet inextricably connected people, the instability of their romance exacerbated by a precarious political climate.
Pawlikowski's last feature, 2013's Ida, won the Oscar for best foreign language film, the story of a young nun and her aunt who are haunted by ghosts of the Holocaust. He's working again with cinematographer Lukasz Zal, who shoots in a crisp black and white that lends the images an icy clarity. Both Ida and Cold War employ similar visual strategies: The camera is often fixed to the ground, the compositions are deliberate and carefully controlled, and our focus is often directed to subjects in the bottom half of the frame, giving us the impression that the world around them is dwarfing them and their personal problems.
Like Ida, Cold War is a portrait of two people who seem to be trapped wherever they go, because of political upheaval or professional obligations, or because their emotions are hopelessly tethered and probably shouldn't be. That also seems to describe the soul of their country, which has never healed and maybe never will, but is forced to go on anyway. ♦