“Find another normal guy who can support you.”
“Such man is not born yet.”
Anyone who saw Ida in theaters in 2013 probably didn’t expect that Pawel Pawlikowski would make a romance as his next picture. But before you start expecting The Notebook, know this: these two lovers derive great pleasure from putting each other’s hearts in a vise. Starting from a destined meeting in 1949 and advancing two more decades, Cold War plays out like the entirety of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but with more emphasis on emotional detachment. Sent by the new communist government to recruit folk singers all over the country, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) counts the hours until he is off the road. The tedium of his work is quickly washed away once he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig). Zula isn’t a singer, nor does she know any folk songs, yet she still wiles her way into performing, entrancing Wiktor in the process. Wiktor’s so completely smitten that he doesn’t even register his assistant’s comment that Zula “apparently killed her father.”
Zula wins the competition, yet unlike Western singing contests, her only reward is dinner and a place to sleep. The quaint halls of the music academy are miles better than what Zula’s used to, but her talent will take her further still. As she progresses and the folk music academy gets more attention, soon she’s on tour stops along the cultural centers of Europe. With Zula’s haunting singing quality and Wiktor’s flair for the piano, the sky’s the limit, but anyone expecting a fairytale ending should quietly exit now. The state-sponsored superintendent Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) poses problems for the couple’s hopes of pursuing their own music. The bureaucrat transitions the patriotic ring of traditional folk songs into blatant propaganda. Eventually, the academy that Wiktor helped found sees him out the door. Though separation should end their courtship, Zula and Wiktor find themselves back together over and over–even as viewers wonder why.
Judging from the film’s fast-paced chronology, it’s not entirely clear that this couple loves each other. The camera is omnipresent for the blow-ups, but anything resembling kindness must be cut during flash forwards. Pawel Pawlikowski has said in interviews that Wiktor and Zula are stand-ins of his own parents, but, more accurately, they resemble Sid and Nancy. For the small time that they are together, Wiktor and Zula have a tendency to go for the jugular; the few quiet moments of intimacy are just used as weapons for annihilation later. The malevolent glee in Zula’s eyes as she tears into Wiktor is more pronounced any look of affection she gives. Juxtaposed against other romance films, the information that Zula and Wiktor learn about each other doesn’t make their newfound love grow. They use what they’ve learned about each other for bludgeoning. In one instance, Zula threatens to inform on him to the state.
Being told by the film that two people are wildly in love doesn’t make it so. 20 years split over 90 minutes leaves too much unseen and untouched; despite their chemistry, Wiktor and Zula’s unengaged pairing leaves audiences unenthused. Adding to the emotional dissonance is that viewers don’t get to know Zula at all. Curiously, for all of the time jumps, Zula’s point of view is never featured. She is the more interesting of the two characters, but the story always follows Wiktor into his bouts of isolation instead.
For its lack of an emotional connection, Cold War does have its advantages. As times change, so does the music and the styles, but the black and white cinematography always looks gorgeous. A stylistic choice Paweł Pawlikowski made before with Ida, the black and white works even better for the backdrop of Cold War. The darkly dressed Wiktor and Zula stand out against the brutal, frigid winter storms. Pawlikowski’s choice to use the Academy ratio expands the black skies into the frame so that it appears the contents of the frame are being squeezed. Each shot places as much pressure on Zula/Wiktor as the restrictive conditions of their homeland. The mood isn’t always somber, however, there’s plenty of gallows humor at play. A man hanging a “We welcome tomorrow!” banner from the academy marquee meets an early death after falling from a ladder. The custodians don’t even pause for a moment of silence before they start the disposal of his body. A laugh doesn’t come much darker than that. Though the real howl comes later on in the film. It’s the first time that Wiktor has seen Zula in years, and the music swells as she rushes toward him–and then by him as she desperately fights the urge. Undercutting an over-used movie moment is a clever choice, but one that also reiterates that the connection between Zula and Wiktor isn’t strong.
There’s no hook, no emotional linchpin to Cold War that, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind possesses. Thanks to the multiple time jumps, we see every pivotal moment of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship, but those are also their worst moments. Viewers don’t desperately hope for Wiktor and Zula to reunite, rather they fear the repercussions of when the couple will come together again. Zula and Wiktor aren’t fully-fleshed characters, rather a metaphor that allows Pawlikowski to ask: could you love a country like you would a person? In this case, the answer should still the same. No.