It’s hard not to feel disheartened by the situation for cinema at the moment. New releases are few and far between, and many venues – independent cinemas especially – remain silent and shuttered. During this time, I’ve found myself trying to dissect exactly what it is that I love about physically going to see films, especially with the abundance of ultra-convenient at-home streaming platforms.
It’s the event of them that I miss. Sitting in an auditorium without distraction is almost a kind of endurance test, which makes the film feel like something you earned. You’ll remember who you went with, or whether you chose to go alone, whether the trip was spontaneous, or planned. I’m lucky enough to have seen films in some pretty spectacular locations – converted churches, ex-warehouses, and once, at a tiny red velvet table in a vast art-deco theatre. I hope we’ll one day see them thriving again, as currently, they are ghosts of their former selves. But in the meantime, I want to think about a piece that reminds me what is precious about their tradition.
Cold War, an elegant, melancholic epic made in 2018 but shot entirely in black and white, lends old-Hollywood glamour to an otherwise sharply contemporary production. Directed by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, the film is an ode to the tempestuous relationship of two lovers during an even more tempestuous era. Never quite escaping the shadow of the Iron Curtain, the film maps a tense decade of promises and betrayals, between both the lovers, and the countries they must cross through. Transporting us from the rural wastelands of Poland in 1949, to the cosmopolitan streets of East Berlin, to Paris in the ‘60s, we finally reach the end of the road in Yugoslavia. The plot is inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents’ love affair. In interviews, he speaks of them as ‘the most interesting dramatic characters I’ve ever come across … both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster.’
The film opens on Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), who had been commissioned to gather folk musicians into a band, the ‘Mazurek ensemble.’ The remoteness of the steppe he travels through is striking – broad vistas of snowy wasteland, his truck a tiny black speck against the vast, grey, sleet-saturated landscape. What begins as a heartfelt artistic endeavour – gathering rare talent from the outskirts of the country – is quickly hijacked by a mercenary communist bureaucrat with an explicitly political agenda: the Mazurek Ensemble must sing the praises of Stalin and agricultural reform. ‘The people don’t sing about Land Reform, peace, leaders…’ protests Wiktor’s colleague. Cut to the next scene and an enormous painting of Stalin slowly rises from the wings behind the singers. This is a climate in which authentic expression has a tough time defending itself.
Zula, unfazed by the authorities’ demands, quickly becomes one of the stars of Mazurek, willing to capitalise on her sex appeal to get where she wants. In snatched moments on trains and between auditions, the love affair between Wiktor and Zula begins. When Wiktor spots a chance to defect from the company in East Berlin, he asks Zula to come with him. But in Criseyde-esque fashion, her pragmatic understanding of the pressures she faces leads her in a very different direction.
For me, Joanna Kulig is the heart of the film. She immediately upstages the peasant girl alongside whom she initially auditions for Mazurek, a metaphor for her charisma. She speaks with brusque candour (‘I am ratting on you […] But I never tell anything that could hurt you.’) She can be ruthless, with a fiery temper and an abundance of reckless energy, dancing on tables, insulting socialites, and at one point, jumping into a river to punctuate an argument. But she’s also vulnerable, soulful, and deeply unhappy. It’s a thrillingly three-dimensional performance that sees her transition from ‘naïve’ peasant girl to sultry cosmopolitan chanteuse.
Łukasz Żal’s beautiful camera work, combined with the film’s spectacular musical score, brings each city the lovers travel through to life. In one scene, Kulig dances drunkenly with a soldier in a jazz club, a scene of such chaotic energy that I almost saw it in colour.
The ending still troubles me, its sadness operatic in proportions. To some, it will prove frustrating. But the difficulty of the ending corresponds to the complexity of Wiktor and Zola’s relationship, which was always a little twisted. ‘Find some normal guy, one who’ll put up with you,’ Wiktor tells her. ‘That sort hasn’t been born yet,’ Zola answers. Their story is as much about what goes unsaid as is said. Zola’s absence from the border where Tomek asks her to meet him speaks volumes. Near the film’s end, she gazes at his prison-etched face across a detention camp border, and no words are needed. Harold Pinter once called speech a ‘constant stratagem to cover nakedness,’ and Cold War is stronger and more truthful for its many ellipses. It is left to the audience to fill in the gaps in the narrative, and to interpret Wiktor and Zola’s true feelings. Appropriately, it left me speechless – and reminded me that our engagement with cinema is vital to the survival of these stories.
This is part of the series ‘Films in Translation’, in which writers explore films from a range of different languages and cultures. Please message Gracie Bolt if you are interested in contributing to the series!