Liam Cruivie | 1 August 2018
L.T. Cruivie celebrates Pawel Pawlikowski’s second Polish film, a magnificent testament to a director striding into an imperial phase.
The Cannes film festival is famous for standing ovations which rather take the piss in length, yet perhaps do well for the festival’s unique appeal. The Independent, after all, considered it perfectly newsworthy to report on a rather typical applause for Spike Lee’s promising new film BlacKkKlansman, which had the audience on their feet for roughly eight minutes. Nowhere besides Polish media, however, could be found any mention of the real Herculean effort of the Cannes glitterati, clapping their hands raw in praise of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (Zimna Wojna) for a – I believe truly rare – twenty minutes.
Such was the heft of expectation when I happened upon the opportunity of seeing the film in the renowned Kino Pod Baranami – a highly ornate small-screen cinema – on the edge of Krakow’s splendid main square. How handy to speak the lingua franca of the modern world, and praise be to mit Englischen Untertitel, sous-titré en anglais, napisy angielskie. So was revealed the opportunity to see this film a good six weeks before the folks back home – and to flatter myself with a noble duty to bolster its first day attendance when it is released in British cinemas on the 31st of August. Yet toss away any idea of a more authentic or complimentary experience – to step out of central Krakow in the Summer 2018 into Poland’s winter countryside of 1946, and to be clouted with the unbelievable communist drabness of the film’s opening, renders Cold War just as exotic as if I’d been viewing it in Glasgow – or perhaps Mars. To be sure, this is a strong period piece, yet the extent to which it transcends that genre is what makes it such a winning effort.
Pawlikowski has always been a fine director, but he has reached something of an apotheosis since he started making films in Polish, and he is very probably the most important filmmaker working in the language today. His first Polish film – after a string of British films and a single French effort – was 2015’s Ida. Shot in the same black and white and set in a similar historical locale as Cold War, the film seems to have set the precedent for Pawlikowski’s success in his native tongue – the Oscar for best foreign language film was forthcoming. Peter Bradshaw enthused that Ida, the personal narrative cum road movie about a Catholic novitiate in 60s Poland who discovers her Jewish parentage upon the eve of her vows, was “Pawlikowski’s masterpiece”. With Cold War, it would appear Bradshaw had spoken too soon. Indeed, Ida does not represent a summative masterpiece, but the beginning of a new imperial phase, seemingly characterised by black and white, the Polish tongue and a certain indebtedness to the pace and thrust of European New Wave cinema.
With Cold War, Pawlikowski expands the pallet he picked up to create Ida, which I think of as a film working with less elements than the several Pawlikowski skilfully wields in Cold War. On the one hand, Ida was limited to the personal development of it’s reticent, phlegmatic heroine, and set against a backdrop of small-town communist Poland in a manner which reminded me, at least superficially, of Wim Wender’s road movie Kings of the Road (Im Lauf Der Zeit), a film which followed it’s protagonists around similarly neglected central European landscapes. Ida is set behind the Iron Curtain, but the potential for romance, and the great drama of history, that such a setting and style affords, remained – quite deliberately – untapped. Ida is a quiet, reflective film, and in it the history exists as an oppressive spectre, rather than an urgent presence.
Cold War takes the opposite tack, and is accordingly very well named. When we think of any lush romance we may find in its historical subject, we soon realise it is to be discovered in the principle of division – the great wall, border guards, escapees, spies, drabness set beside neon colour and bonds crudely severed; countries, families and, naturally enough, lovers. This is the biggest seam that Cold War mines, and where it lays its drab scene we find a pair of star-crossed lovers, and a film which moves beyond the Polish border into Paris, Berlin, Yugoslavia; orbiting around its central menacing motif, and driven by the great sweep of history. In one scene, we even see a nuclear detonation in the background. For all the stylistic continuity, we are no longer in the territory of Ida.
Yet for all this, Cold War is no genre workout and, as it begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in for something else indeed. In sumptuous black and white, the film opens with the grizzly visage of the weather-beaten – and history-weathered – Polish rural poor, three of whom then rise up in a peasant chorus of a traditional folk number. The instruments screech, the voices grate and the audience is treated to a raw musical beauty, and an air of rural realism that utterly belies the smoky Parisian bars that are to come. “Feet on the Threshold” goes one line reliably provided by the napisy angielskie and the film’s primary motif is set from the off. The film closes (in circumstances I will not reveal) with the line “Let’s go over to the other side, the view is better there.”, revealing the neat bookended structure that chimes division and affords Pawlikowski the freedom to work with the diverse elements he does.
The film’s plot, then, follows the fortunes of Wiktor Warski (played by Tomasz Kot), a composer who heads a performance company tasked with bringing the music of Poland’s peasantry to the stage, and Zula Lichon (Joanna Kulig), the singer who, with more cunning than raw talent, wrenches herself from poverty, through the company and into a tumultuous relationship with Wiktor. Beset with troubles of artistic integrity (the company’s commitment to “the music of the people” inevitably arousing the interest of the Stalinist authorities) Wiktor and Zula pledge to flee – or elope – to the west. At the still permeable border crossing in a bombed out Berlin (the wall yet to come) Wiktor waits, Zula does not arrive and Wiktor makes the fateful crossing. So begins a tale of epic love with a surprisingly wide scope. As the film unfolds across the continent of Europe over a time span of about twenty years, issues of perspective (the “grass always greener” phenomenon) drive the lovers mercilessly towards their fate, forever buffeted by the push and pull of contrasting worlds.
Pawlikowski’s source material here is intriguing. Wiktor’s dance company is based on the real Mazowsze folk group, founded by Tadeusz Sygietyński, which still performs today, and the central relationship is based on that of Pawlikowski’s own parents, a doctor and ballerina who crossed from Poland into exile in the 1970s. One might consider to what extent Pawlikowski seeks to dramatise a history that must, inevitably, hold such immediate and personal truth. Consider for a second the scenario of a Polish film director, striving for an onscreen portrayal of the realities of his country’s history as well as the personal story of his parent’s woe’s at the hands of that particular tyranny. A romantic homage to the New Wave is far down the list of appropriate realisations – it might even be inappropriate.
Yet Pawlikowski succeeds in this area just as much as the other. The film manages lush, and it manages searing; romantic, and real. A comment from Pawlikowski on his decision to shoot in black and white is particularly telling.
Black and white seemed like the most honest and true colour for that period of 1950s Poland when it was rather difficult to talk about colour because life there was pretty grey, there was very little contrast. It wasn’t out of nostalgia it was because I thought it seemed best. And perhaps it lent a kind of story-like, mythical quality to things.
We see her the extent of Pawlikowski’s ambition, arrived at seemingly by intuition alone. Pawlikowski the restrained realist sees black and white as the “true colour” of his film’s setting. Pawlikowski the lush romanticist, on the other hand, appreciates the “mythical quality” it brings. This type of intuitive synthesis seems to magnificently resolve Pawlikowski’s myriad contradictions. It’s actually quite ironic that the above quote signals a world devoid of contrast when this is a film that works by contrast more than anything else! Contrast between east and west, Paris and Warsaw, the jazz bar and the labour camp, Wiktor and Zula.
One thing the viewer very quickly realises is that, for all its clear stylistic debts, this film isn’t an homage to anything. The film is a work of alchemy, and gold doesn’t very much resemble lead. With its tight dichotomies and synthesised contradictions at heart, the film then unfolds with all the necessary competence to bring it off. It is of course beautifully shot; critic Wendy Ide said of Ida that there was “no frame that isn’t a thing of heartfelt beauty” and the same is true here. Joanna Kulig gives memorable turn as the sometimes rugged, sometimes sultry Zula, a performance which reminded me very much of Jennifer Lawrence, far beyond the slight physical resemblance. Tomasz Kot as Wiktor delivers impeccably that air of trampled ambition, of warm despondency that we may think of as the Polish artistic spirit under communism – or perhaps just the human spirit crushed under tyranny. Utterly at the mercy of love, it is indeed great tragedy when that spirit is crushed for good, and the exhaustion washes over.
And let us not forget the music. Most prominent is the rough-edged beauty of the Polish folks songs, the obscene communist anthems (most notable when Wiktor’s company is forced to gush out an ode to “wonderful comrade Stalin” as the tyrant’s airbrushed visage is unfolded across the stage) and the smouldering ballads with which Wiktor’s muse, billed as a some Slavic escapee curiosity, enraptures the Parisian audience. Joanna Kulig actually appeared in Ida, in several of that film’s subtle and sparse musical moments, as a similar cast of singer. She enriched the backdrop there. Here, Pawlikowski brings her centre stage, and bequeaths his film a veritable theme song. A number of plaintive beauty, which several Poles I spoke to claimed had a habit of hanging around in their heads. I reproduce the opening lines below –
Dwa serduszka, cztery oczy, ojojoj
Two little hearts, four eyes
Co płakały we dnie, w nocy, ojojoj
Which cried day and night
Czarne oczka co płaczecie
Dark eyes you are crying
Bo się spotkać nie możecie
Because you cannot meet
Bo się spotkać nie możecie, ojojoj
Because you cannot meet
With peasant simplicity then, the song signals the lovers at the heart of the film, and the estrangement which drives it. The potential for centrepiece is not lost on Pawlikowski, and we hear the song develop from its unrefined mountain origins to a softly glowing cornerstone of Zula’s Parisian repertoire. The lovers, the only constant transcending the sweeping contrasts of the film, are celebrated (mourned) in a song we hear on both sides of the film’s central iron division. It is a theme song in the truest sense, and you can hear it in the trailer.
Following the marathon ovation, Pawlikowski deservedly picked up the Palme D’Or for best director. How could he have failed? That the film, in its depiction of communist Europe, could ring true with ever-sceptical Polish audiences whilst simultaneously being praised by critics as a “faultless romantic epic” belies the work of a man deft in wielding his tools. It doesn’t surprise me that some critics don’t quite know how to properly capture the appeal of Cold War in words, and have defaulted to one or the other “obvious” influences. The truth is that the influences vanish when Pawlikowski brings them together, the diffuse historical and personal source material, the romantic lushness and the realist drabness leave no trace of their origins in the final product.
Pawlikowski strikes me as a director who doesn’t entertain stagnation, but I can’t conceive of a third Polish film, in black and white, failing to unite with Ida and Cold War in a monumental trilogy. Yet such a trilogy would be largely stylistic, and Pawlikowski has proven he can transcend that with splendour.
Cold War will be released in British cinemas on August 31st.