EIFF 2018: Cold War

Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski’s new film, begins in 1949: Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician and composer, and producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) search through the Polish countryside for the sound of authentic folk music, in order to form a troupe. One of those who auditions is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman who, gossip suggests, is not who she maintains to be. But she successfully joins because, as many of the men she meets tell her, she “has something”; one of those men is Wiktor, and the two form a relationship, which is interrupted and stretched and pained from the year they meet until 1964.

From the opening moments, this is a film infused with song: as part of daily folklife, as pleasure, as ecstasy, as performance; but it’s because of the last of these that it all falls apart. As the troupe becomes successful, politicians begin to meddle with their compositions, asking if a hymn to Stalin can be added to their repertoire. It’s the music that causes another rift, no less political; when the troupe perform in Berlin, Wiktor plans to cross from east to west, and wants Zula to join him. There’s an opportunity missed here, which is mirrored in the film’s tragic structure, and in its wonderful editing. From this point on, the temporal jumps become more frequent and severe, marked by heavy cuts to black, which act as caesuras. Just as Zula and Wiktor can never know what the lost time might have held for them, so viewers can never know what happened in the periods between the pauses.

As with Pawlikowski’s brilliant Ida (2014), there is a forlorn sensibility at work here. These frames — resplendently monochromatic, and presented in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio — are replete with sadness. Close ups capture the hurt expressions, beautifully acted by Kulig and Kot, the physical marks of each other’s absence. Łukas Żal’s magnificent cinematography has a great eye for the way in which surroundings, interior and exterior, convey the emotions of the text. But it’s with the interiors that some indelible impressions are made. In one scene, in which Zula sings to a crowd, the camera is in gliding motion, fixed on her profile, moving exactly and carefully with the tempo of the soft, sad, swooning jazz. It’s a moment of exquisite cinematic and musical rhythm.

There’s something else at work in these images, something much more profound, much more disquieting. What the 4:3 aspect ratio accentuates, when the characters’ faces hold the screen, is how much negative space is above them. There is, and the film’s discourse confirms it, something religious about these frames. One of the things Zula and Wiktor share is deism, a belief in God. This is represented in Cold War by an abandoned church, gorgeously proportioned; one of its walls bares a cracked and faded etching of Jesus Christ, only his eyes still clear from decay. There is an altar, at which Wiktor places a candle. All of this is eerily reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983), another film in which an artistic soul flees their homeland, only to feel its ineluctable pull. This is not an accident: Zula and Wiktor find themselves on many occasions drawn back to Poland. Religion and the uncanny combine to make a potent force in this picture.

Yet for all that’s unfeeling and cruel and exacting in Cold War, there is a scene which simply will not leave my mind, and it’s a surfeit of joy. Zula and Wiktor are in a bar, emptied of most of its patrons, alone together. They simply dance. The music plays, and as it does, they press their bodies together, and in time with the sound, sway in each other’s arms. It feels miraculous that anyone could love at all in that world. And although this scene lasts for mere seconds, I wish it would go on forever.

Image Credit: Edinburgh International Film Festival

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