THE INTERSECTION BETWEEN politics and love in life is fairly well-trodden filmic ground, ripe as it is for some of the most beautiful romances imaginable. It’s a ground fertile with issues of young love, utter devastation, twisted values and magnificent music. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War touches all of these significant pivots and the work he has created with the fabulous Polish performers Joanna Kulig opposite Tomasz Kot is simply magnificent.
This Polish- and French-language film with English subtitles begins with a just post-World War Two initiative to give muscle and relevance to Polish folk culture, and amid the ruins of broken architecture and the relics of a bygone era shot to pieces by war, a music school is born, offering tuition in the old values from the old times. It is here where you are exposed to the soppy love ditties from medieval Europe, sung with a bright freshness that bring primeval tears. These are songs about issues like boys a good girl shouldn’t love, and the tears one sheds with a broken heart. These are dances choreographed and costumed with a cheerful blend of unabashed parochialism, fertility and robustness, devoid of sinister nuances.
It is at the audition to the school where we first meet Zula (Kulig). She’s a gutsy survivor who will brook no hesitation in choosing the force of life for herself. She insinuates herself into the school and the life of the music instructor (Kot) with chutzpah and a sense of self that is cheeky yet infectious. But when she comes face to face with big ideological decisions, she’s just a peasant. The film, crafted in black and white and featuring such fine photography that almost every still is a masterpiece, takes a twist around the intrusion of Stalinist values in folklore and the corruption of the mainstream, as it presents a foray into stolen love.
While the second half of the film, which takes the narrative through the Cold War and various European cities, from Zagreb to Paris, is handled with a looser narrative hand than the first, the peppering of music and poetry, of alcohol and cigarettes in a world clumsily finding its feet, not to forget marriages in broken churches, is simply beautiful.
Like much East European film narrative, the work doesn’t bend over backwards to describe each nuance in the lives of the characters; it’s a mood piece rather than a slavish account. The work, not dissimilar from Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, not only because of its use of black and white photography, but because of its unspoken narrative threads sewn with elegance and conviction, bears a tale that is universal in its simplicity and haunting in its beauty. An instant classic.
- Cold War is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and features a cast headed by Izabela Andrzejak, Jeanne Balibar, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Ciemniejewksa, Joanna Depczynska, Adam Ferency, Gracjana Graczyk, Patryk Jurczyk, Cédric Kahn, Pawel Kasprzak, Piotr Kielbasa, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Joanna Kulig, Damian Kuznik, Dominika Ladziak, Martyna Mankowska, Tomasz Markiewicz, Damian Muszka, Zofia Nowak, Anna Pas, Aloïse Sauvage, Drazen Sivak, Mateusz Skladanowski, Dominik Skorek, Slavko Sobin, Borys Szyc, Adam Szyszkowski, Adam Woronowicz, Anna Zagórska, Piotr Zalipski and Mateusz Zawada. It is written by Piotr Borkowski, Janusz Glowacki and Pawel Pawlikowski and produced by Ewa Puszczynska and Tanya Seghatchian, it features creative input by Lukasz Zal (cinematography), Jaroslaw Kaminski (editing), Estelle Chailloux and Magdalena Szwarcbart (casting), Benoît Barouh, Marcel Slawinski and Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska (production design) and Ola Staszko (costumes). It is part of the European Film Festival, screening in several South African outlets during November and December 2019.