“Cold War”


            Ever had a romantic relationship that was just toxic?  You were drawn to each other, you tried to make a go of it, but you just weren't good for each other.  Something about the chemistry between you that did not bring out the best in either of you. And yet somehow the bad experiences don't outweigh the force of the compelling attraction, and so you keep getting back together, hoping for a different result.  That's the kind of relationship that is at the center of the Polish movie called “Cold War.”

            1949.  Poland is part of the Soviet bloc.  The Communist Party officials, wishing to attempt to inject some artistry into a bleak culture, recruit some local Polish talent to sing folk songs, and perform folk dances.  One of their recruits, Zula (Joanna Kulig), has a checkered past, but they select her anyway, because of a fine singing voice, and a certain liveliness of personality while performing.  It doesn't hurt that she's slim, blonde, and beautiful. She soon catches the eye of the musical director, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and they fall in love with each other quickly and easily.  The little folk troupe is a big success, and soon they are touring all over Poland.  But the Party officials begin to insist that they sing songs of tribute to the Party, even in front of a huge poster of Stalin, who's now become kind of the patron saint of an atheistic Communism.  The original leaders of the folk troupe are unhappy with what they consider artistic compromise, but Wiktor is so enthralled with Zula he hardly notices.  The troupe is even invited to perform in Berlin, their first international showcase.

            Now the complications begin.  Wiktor is so in love with Zula that he wants to be run away with her, to defect and make a new life for themselves.  Zula loves Wiktor, but is not so sure that she wants to step off a cliff like that, figuratively speaking, with no solid ground under her feet.  So she fails to show up for the rendezvous.  Wiktor defects by himself, and becomes a piano player in a jazz band, playing in a Paris nightclub.  He doesn't see Zula for several years, but can't quit thinking about her, even though he's in a relationship now, with a successful French poet.  Then one evening Zula reappears.  She had met and married an Italian businessman, but mostly just to be able to officially change her citizenship.  She still loved performing, and Wiktor is able to introduce her to French musicians who are enamored with her velvety singing voice.  Soon she is performing on stage as a soloist, but there's something that prevents her from being truly happy.  She feels she's lost her moorings, and begins drinking heavily.  She leaves Wiktor at the end of an inebriated argument, and again they don't see each other for several years.

            She thought she'd be happy returning to Poland, but she wasn't.  She thought she could return to the Party official who was so interested in her before, and he would find her work, but she winds up stumbling her way through ketchy American pop songs in a small club, until finally Wiktor finds her again.  But by this time her love/hate relationship with him is magnified on both ends of the spectrum. Wiktor knows he's got a tiger by the tail, but he can't help himself.  Any more than she can not be who she is.

            It's foreign language, with subtitles.  It's in black and white.  It reflects the bleakness of the time period, Poland as part of the fast-crumbling Soviet bloc that would later disintegrate entirely.  And it features a love story that hardly involves “happily ever after.”  So “Cold War” isn't for everybody.  But Oscar-winning Director Pawel Pawilkowski paints a lingering melancholy mood that is vaguely unsettling, especially to the polyanna romanticists.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association