' ' Cinema Romantico: Cold War

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Cold War

“Cold War” opens with a close-up of a Polish peasant in a mountainous outpost singing a traditional folk tune while looking into the camera, suggesting a hyper-present. That present, however, is almost instantly counteracted when we realize Irena (Agata Kulesza), a musicologist, has come here to record this song, and others, suggesting preservation of what once was rather than a celebration of what is. After all, it is post-WWII, Poland’s history threatening to be ground up in the gears of Soviet imposed communism. This becomes apparent when Irena and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor, recruit villagers in the mountains for an ensemble to honor their nation’s folk past by touring and performing. Yet if these songs, as Irena explains, are politically agnostic, she and Wiktor are quickly asked by government functionaries to include more references to, say, land reform, or, you know, dear old Uncle Joe. In this moment, foreshadowing a film where the minimal is frequently monumental, Wiktor says nothing, betraying his willingness to go along, while Irena resists and then falls entirely out of the film.

Irena stands in stark contrast to Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman who enters the ensemble by posing as a villager, betraying aspirations of remaking herself. That desire ultimately becomes intertwined in a romance with Wiktor, one that does not gradually develop so much as simply erupt, evoking a classic bit of Bruce Springsteen songwriting economy: “He looked straight at her and she looked straight back.” Yet it is not enough to transcend their circumstances. Pawlikowski shatters the idyll of their love in a scene where they laze in the grass next to a picturesque stream as she casually reveals she has been enlisted to spy on him, the surveillance state mocking the moment’s apparent privacy. Indeed, when the ensemble travels to Berlin, Wiktor defects to the west. And though Zula intends to join, she declines at the last minute.

From there, “Cold War” transforms into a doomed love affair stretching across the ages, though it remains decidedly intimate rather than becoming epic. A poet with whom Wiktor and Zula eventually collaborate pens a line that becomes something akin to an emotional and aesthetic mantra: the pendulum killed time. If you are in love, the poet explains, then time is meaningless, and so Pawlikowski’s repeated flash forwards, making a year, sometimes more, go by in the space of single scene approximate the sensation this line engenders. In this way, Zula’s marriage of convenience and Wiktor’s music career in Paris, feel virtually beside the point, life’s mile markers, nothing more.

Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal shoot not only in black and white but in 4:3 aspect ratio, squaring off the frame, appearing to box in the characters. They did the same for their previous collaboration, “Ida”, about an aspiring nun, the constricted frames there leaving space at the top to give you a sense of God, or a lack thereof. In “Cold War”, however, the frames emit weight pressing down on Wiktor and Zula, whether it is mammoth propaganda posters of the Soviet Premier or the dark, smoky atmosphere of Parisian clubs, twisting the city’s sense of liberation into something more stifling, as if even here, in Paris, where they do eventually re-unite, they cannot escape.

That lack of escape is paramount. Defecting proves no remedy for Wiktor, his emergent five o’clock shadow representing less artist cool than grubby exhaustion. As the movie progressed, my mind kept drifting back to Irena, as if her conspicuous, unsentimental removal from the film was her own salvation. Indeed, “Cold War’s” depressing truth is something like the Iron Curtain as a cloak, draped wherever you go, and in the haunting visual poetry of his conclusion, Pawlikowski improbably embodies the notion of setting free someone that you love with a grim twist, the punctation of wind rippling through a field evoking another great Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds”, that soft breeze sounding like Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) blowing out the candles to his fallen comrades.

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