Artists suffer under communism in ‘Cold War’

Star Joanna Kulig’s performance is a dynamic force.

Amazon Studios/AP
Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig star in 'Cold War.'

Pawel Pawlikowski’s most recent film, “Ida,” was about a girl about to become a Roman Catholic nun. Shot in black and white, in artfully framed tableaux where the camera rarely moved, it was an almost stiflingly ascetic experience – a heavy dose of spiritual angst that also reflected the heavy-going angst of postwar Poland in the Soviet era.

His latest film, “Cold War,” which he co-wrote with Piotr Borkowski and Janusz Glowacki and which is a nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film (Pawlikowski also earned a nod for best director), is equally bleak and, at times, equally powerful. But it’s a far more fragmented experience than “Ida.” Dramatized in short narrative bursts over a period of 15 years, ranging across Poland, Germany, France, and Yugoslavia – all in a running time of 89 minutes – it’s a movie that seems always in the process of finding itself. (It’s also reportedly based, in part, on the lives of the director’s parents.) 

The film opens in 1949 as Wiktor
(Tomasz Kot), a music conductor and pianist, is heading a team tasked with chronicling authentic regional Polish songs and dances among the peasantry. While holding auditions for a choral and dance performance, he is struck by the effrontery and sheer beauty of the teenage Zula (Joanna Kulig), who soon becomes not only the emerging troupe’s star but his lover, though she is at least 10 years his junior.

It becomes dismayingly clear to Wiktor, who is a musical purist, that the troupe’s authenticity is being adulterated by the Communist authorities into an ersatz folklorism meant to serve the greater glory of Stalin. For Zula, who is far less troubled than Wiktor by these developments, politics is less paramount for her than stardom. Besides, she did not even grow up in the rural countryside. Rumor even has it that she murdered her father for having tried to molest her. 

The stage is thus set for an incendiary, star-crossed romance between temperamental opposites. When Wiktor has had enough of the propaganda and enjoins Zula to defect with him while touring in East Germany, she proves a no-show, leaving him to wend his lonely way in jazz clubs and cabarets in the West while she becomes a rising songstress in Poland. They meet up periodically, sometimes tempestuously, sometimes with a resigned melancholy, as their lives, loaded up with other crises and other lovers, intersect in ways that seem both random and fated. For all this to work as a love story, however problematic, we need a pair of actors who strike sparks. Kot, tall, lanky, and given to lingering silences, is in the Gary Cooper mold, Polish-style, but as an actor, he’s something of a stiff. His inscrutability, which apparently is meant to highlight the damages he has suffered because of political and sexual repression, is rather blah. 

What saves him (and the movie) is the rude, dynamic force of Kulig’s performance. It’s never possible to get a fix on what Zula is thinking, and this is as it should be. Clearly she is an opportunist and yet her ardor for Wiktor is real, if compromised by circumstance. (She is pressured by the authorities to inform on him, among other fun tasks.) Her aura of danger, sexual and otherwise, is a tonic to Wiktor as well as a blight. 

Kulig resembles Jennifer Lawrence, both facially and in the way she can swing in an instant from giddiness to an almost scary intensity. There’s also a whiff of the Jeanne Moreau whose flagrant sensuality drove men wild in “Jules et Jim,” and more than a hint of a film noir vamp, too. Without ever sacrificing her own singularity, Kulig is like a crammed compendium of movie femmes fatales.

The film’s black-and-white bleakness reinforces the noirish depravity that Pawlikowski transposes to postwar Poland. The hopelessness of the romance is metaphorically linked to the despair wrought by the Soviets. Except, to his credit, Pawlikowski makes it clear that Wiktor and Zula’s problems are as much personal as political. It’s likely that in any era, these two would make a warring, combustible combo. Still, granting this psychological complexity, what struck home the most forcefully for me in “Cold War” is its depiction, insidious and unrelenting, of how artists under communism suffered for their art. At its best, the film is like a bulletin from a benighted world. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexual content, nudity, and language.)

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