Their love was meant to be one for the ages, but sometimes shit happens. A film dedicated to his parents, Paweł Pawlikowski’s newest feature, Cold War, follows Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), as they fall in and out and back in love again over the course of decades with the presence of the Cold War lingering like a blanketed shadow over them in Poland. Zula and Wiktor are introduced to one another through the chance of prosperity through art, specifically music. Wiktor is looking for the hottest new talent to help improve his traveling musical productions and Zula stands out immediately with her porcelain, angelic features and unconventional, unique vocal abilities. She’s stunning for a moment, framed in close-up and given the chance to show who she is through her voice. Joanna Kulig is extraordinary here and Pawlikowski smartly lets the camera sit with her as she performs instead of inserting any formal gimmicks or tricks, which he would do later. Because we see the scene through Wiktor’s viewpoint—we look at her as he looks at her—he falls in love. In stories of romance that are meant to engulf the world around the characters until their connection is the only thing that matters, introducing that love through a highly emotive, exceptional scene is necessary. It should carry the film for the remainder of its running time. It’s why the recent re-telling of A Star is Born has proven to be so effective, and Cold War does not make the mistake of losing the soul of its couple’s relationship until much later. In the beginning, we feel for Zula and Wiktor as they fawn over one another and collaborate and survive Europe after the Second World War through art, and even if the film looks like hundreds of other post-war Eastern European pictures, specifically those beholden to Ingmar Bergman, it doesn’t dilute the initial draw of their relationship or the gorgeous images constructed around their love...at first.
After Wiktor leaves Zula for a job opportunity the first fissuring of their relationship begins and so does the deconstruction of the picture. It becomes increasingly obvious that Pawlikowski’s formal concept of their relationship is more important than what the characters would go through themselves over the years. Pawlikowski uses Soviet montage techniques to deliberately fracture and sew together image and movement as a metaphor for the Cold War itself. This idea isn’t an intrinsically bad one, but it completely neutralizes the couple’s relationship as the film carries on. This is likely entirely the point that Pawlikowski wanted to communicate through form, but a movie about love cannot work if there is not a follow-through or reason to believe in the prosperity of its characters. The initial interactions between Zula and Wiktor are effective in planting the seeds of their need to be one with one another, but as the film progresses it is necessary for distance and time to be felt as a punctured effect which should in turn make the viewer desire a reunion between the two. In the case of Cold War, the disparity between the editing and the actual physicality and possibility of sex in their relationship is rendered moot by an intellectual understanding of metaphor and love instead of a primal, tactile longing for contact. Soviet montage works in opposites, an exterior shot followed by an interior, to give an example, but Pawlikowski has a limited understanding of what this technique is capable of creating. The technique is not antithetical to physicality or romance, but the film treats it as such, and additionally fails to endorse this form of filmmaking completely. Occasionally the decision is made to abort the technique entirely in an attempt to let Zula and Wiktor linger with one another in longer, grander gestures of their love, but the earlier technique we’ve already witnessed has damaged the ability to become invested in their physicality. Pawlikowski’s willingness to lose the technique when necessary illuminates that, for him, it is a gimmick. The intrusionary nature of the edit requires the two to have moments where their own love for one another should overpower the form, giving the film a depth and clarity that their relationship should matter, but they are not given such scenes. It is merely the same rhythm repeated over and over again ad nauseum until Zula and Wiktor are no more. Pawlikowski uses the camera in a way that feels mechanical and mathematical after the first separation of Wiktor and Zula. The organic nature of their relationship that is fostered through the work in the first twenty minutes or so becomes broken up to the point where their love is lost in favor of tools and technique. It all feels doomed under the weight of the Soviet montage gimmick as metaphor. It becomes increasingly difficult to view their relationship as anything other than an intellectual metaphor for post-war Eastern Europe. When Pawlikowski wants their relationship to momentary blossom before fading once more it feels inauthentic, because the work has not been made to give Wiktor or Zula much of anything resembling an internal need for one another.
Cold War gallops through the late 1940s and the early 60s at a break-neck pace causing the film to have little room to breathe. Again, this is an obvious formal claim of time being sucked away or “the Cold war has robbed these people of their lives.” It’s desolate, but Wiktor and Zula’s love should crack the central metaphorical idea giving the film the depth it would need to convey two things at once. It should be utterly romantic every time they find their way back into each other’s arms while also conveying through the montage that life is full of unfair and undue circumstances. There should be a push-pull quality between the romance that was set-up in the first act and the following usage of montage to splinter their relationship, and the first act should communicate with the rest of the film. The beginning is the only time the film belongs to Zula and Wiktor, but they fall under the weight of form. Cold War instead plays like a mild curse, as life continues to become worse and worse for the poor couple. Wiktor ends up in prison for border crossing. Zula is assumed to be a single parent and struggling with alcohol problems. As the years race by the film makes sure to emphasize the cultural and political touchstones of the time like Stalinism and the birth of rock and roll, but the relentless pacing of the years mixed with an obvious pinpointing of cultural artifacts feels less like capturing anything of note and more like a greatest hits reel that plays like Forrest Gump for intellectuals. The music evolves over the years and Zula attempts to make a career as tastes change and Wiktor is away, but we never really know if she ever made it as a musician. We see her performing for crowds, but we know very little about this woman outside of her trysts with Wiktor, which are framed like snapshots and memories but never offer any further evidence of who these people are beyond the inevitable distance that would come between them once more.
This all speaks to the central problem of Cold War: it’s too constructed to truly have a soul. Romance isn’t mechanical and while filmmakers have mined the Second World War for great melodrama before (such as The Cranes are Flying ), a film that also uses Soviet montage techniques), Cold War fails at creating a resonant feeling of otherworldly, once-in-a-lifetime love while also acknowledging the central metaphor placed in the form’s gimmick. Pawlikwoski is ultimately only interested in one half of the equation. Wiktor and Zula are characters beholden to that decision. They are in service of image and movement, and not the other way around, and in order for a love story to be successful the formula has to be presented in a way which centers these characters. Instead, they are at mercy of montage, which is completely ambivalent to who they are or the love they expressed to one another in the opening stages of the film. At the end of the day they were unimportant, and if they are unimportant what is the point of telling this story? If the filmmaker cannot honor their humanity, love and sacrifice then what is presented is less a story of people than of time and ambivalence. War is hell, this is true, but you can’t have it both ways by saying love is timeless without putting in the effort to emphasize their love in the first place. To ask viewers to feel for Zula and Wiktor while also acknowledging that they aren’t even the most important aspect of your form is nigh bankrupt. How can you confidently assert your mastery as a filmmaker if you cannot complete the basic task of making their love matter? Films like Cold War come out every year. They are pretty, loaded with stunning images, and thuddingly obvious.