I saw 85 of the 87 films entered in the Foreign Language category of the 2019 Academy Awards, and Cold War was my favorite. Not only is the film one of the five nominees, but director Paweł Pawlikowski earned a Best Director nomination and Łukasz Żal gained a nomination for Best Achievement in Cinematography, just as he did four years earlier for Pawlowski’s Ida, which won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015.
What most impresses me about Cold War is the way it uses music to tell its story without the film being a musical. Pawlikowski has made it clear that he was inspired by the need to portray the love-hate relationship of his own brilliant and talented, but also contentious parents. He even uses his parents’ real names, Zula and Wiktor, for the main characters, although the details of the plot are different.
I once read 25 Polish novels (in English) in chronological order, written between 1797 and 1998. By the time I completed this reading cycle, I had the feeling that the sun never shines in Poland, and that it is always raining or, at least, covered in mud. Of course, I know that this is not true, but still. Cold War did not disabuse me of this impression. I’ve also seen many Polish films, and there is one scene that stands out for me. At the beginning of the film Katyn, made by the famous director Andrzej Wajda when he was 80 years old, two sets of fleeing refugees meet on a bridge. Those escaping to the east are fleeing the Nazis. Those headed west are running away from the advancing Soviet army. The Poles, as is so often the case, are victimized by someone else’s war and someone else’s ideology.
Cold War opens in this same bleak atmosphere. It is 1949, and musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kuleska, who played the Aunt Wanda in Ida) are tasked with traveling through rural areas and auditioning young people to create a troupe (based on the real Mazowsze folk group) that will perform traditional Polish songs and dances. For Wiktor, one applicant stands out. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is not like the other young singers. She is a bit older, more urban, more ambitious. He falls for her, and she reciprocates. Irena informs Wiktor that Zula is a parolee. When he confronts her, Zula explains, “[My father] mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference. He didn’t die. Don’t worry.”
Soon, government representatives make it clear that the troupe’s mesmerizing folk music performances must be supplemented with doses of Stalinist propaganda. The little bit of good news is that this allows Tomasz, Zula and rest of the troupe to travel to other countries and see some of the world.
Over the next fifteen years, Tomasz crosses into the West, while Zula chooses to stay behind. They each find other partners, but they can’t let go of their volatile attraction to each other. Musically, thanks to the work of arranger Marcin Masecki, we progress through Polish folk music, a Soviet film song, “I Love You Porgy”, Chopin, Parisian jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, “Rock Around the Clock”, a cheap cabaret version of the popular 1950s Polish hit “Baio Bongo” with the musicians wearing sombreros and, over the credits, Glenn Gould’s Bach Goldberg Variations.
This is the third film in which Pawlikowski has found a part for Joanna Kulig, but the first in which she is the lead actress. In real-life, Kulig has a lively personality, so, for the role of Zula, Pawlikowski had her study the films of Lauren Bacall. According to both director and actress, whenever Kulig became too ebullient during the filming, he would call out to her, “Lauren Bacall.”