Cold War’s big chill

It’s a bleak story, in spite of its actors’ talent and charisma. If you go expecting to have fun, you’ll be disappointed.

Cold War (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cold War
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The trailer and ads for Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning film, Ida, promise a movie that is sexy and romantic, about an affair between a singer and a musician in post-World War II Poland.
But the movie itself, although it has a tragic romance as its central plot line, is much more of an allegory about the perils of the Cold War-era than a story about love. Like Ida, a film about a young nun who discovers that her parents were Jews who died in the Holocaust, Cold War is meticulously directed, each black-and-white shot composed like a great photograph.
Nothing is random. Every line, every gesture and image works to tell the story and to underscore its characters’ lack of agency in the face of the totalitarian bureaucracy that ensnares them in Poland, and later, the cutthroat competition of the entertainment world in the West.
It’s a bleak story, in spite of its actors’ talent and charisma. If you go expecting to have fun, you’ll be disappointed.
It starts with Victor (Tomasz Kot), a jazz pianist and musical arranger, traveling around rural Poland in the late 1940s, recording folk music and scouting talented folk singers who can perform in a troupe.
He is accompanied by a slightly older colleague, Irena (Agata Kulesza), who is extremely serious and knowledgeable about their work, and Kaczmarek (Boris Szyc), a Communist Party functionary.
For Victor, who’s much more into jazz, the work is tedious, until he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig). Zula is a beautiful blond with a checkered past – she went to prison for stabbing her drunken father after he tried to rape her and is out on a conditional release – who is also not that crazy about folk tunes but is willing to sing them if it can help her professionally.
The two are immediately drawn to each other, but although love and physical attraction bring them together, they are constantly torn apart by the inhumanity of the Communist system they are part of.
Early On, The Two go for a stroll in an idyllic country landscape, but just as life looks perfect, Zula admits to Victor that she is being pressured to inform on him, at a time when being insufficiently worshipful of state-approved propaganda music could be considered a crime. While she insists she hasn’t revealed anything incriminating about him to the authorities, he is disgusted by her.
This kind of attraction/repulsion between the two characterizes the movie as they are inevitably faced with bad and worse choices, making each other suffer no matter what they do. At every stage and in every country, Zula is pursued by other men who dangle career advancement to entice her.
But when she circles back to Victor, their attempts to find happiness together are doomed. Their thwarted passion is almost comic in its repetitiveness, but it isn’t played for laughs. It’s about how they are destroyed by the shallow sloganeering and power games of communism and the vapid ambition of capitalism. 
The two leads are attractive and have chemistry. Kulig looks like Jennifer Lawrence with a slightly otherworldly vibe, and seems poised on the cusp of major international stardom.
But in spite of their sensuous good looks and the movie’s crisp, intricate cinematography and intelligent screenplay, the story is never as involving as it should be. It doesn’t quite earn the gravitas to which it aspires. About halfway through, I started to find it irritating rather than sorrowful that they couldn’t find a way to make their love work.
It was at this point that I started to long for another movie about a tragic romance under communism, Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a 1988 movie based on Czech author Milan Kundera’s novel.
Although that film was in English – it starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin – it gave a much more vivid sense of the give and take between communism and capitalism, of how the personal and political can be connected, and did it all in the context of a tragic and very sexy love story. The playfulness of that film got across its points in far more enjoyable way than Cold War’s careful chill.