“Love is love, and that’s that.”
I didn’t think I would be able to write about Cold War. It was an experience of profound beauty and real heartache, one that maybe should have been left untouched. But here we are, and here I am. It’s St. Valentine’s Day, the feast day of lost causes. One of those days that should be taken lightly, but somehow it’s not, as time slides, and life comes into perspective. Its soundtrack is still haunting me days after viewing it. Because it’s glorious. A spell of sorts.
Another reason for my reluctance in unpacking this shimmering Black and White enigma of a film was that writing a review requires at least some kind of analysis of the text in question – and one of the reasons I believe this film will live a legendary life is precisely because it is an entirely visceral, poetic & unapologetic ode to the essential mystery of love. In the way Wong Kar-Wai‘s In The Mood For Love was, but with a tragedy and isolation that is both inner and outer.
Love itself is the main drama. As in life. Albeit, in life, it’s stretched in time, and therefore, bearable, seemingly lost among the trivia. It’s also probably the only experience a dying person recalls when leaving this realm.
What keeps our Cold War lovers apart is what draws them together, and the same can be said of the circumstances in which they meet and love and suffer. Improbability makes the heart beat faster. Too much comfort dulls the intensity of any feeling, kills all passions slowly, and inevitably. But no love is stronger than the love that we lost, unredeemed.
Their bond is forged by something beyond time. We can analyse the mechanics, the pheromones, the intricate pathologies of crazy love, but never its wild heart. There is science to it that says that hearts of people madly in love synchronise, their breaths align. To know how this occurs would mean to understand the world. And none of us do. Love has the power to transport our hearts outside of our own bodies, into our love’s flesh, the places they dwell – a floating heart. Yet we finally feel its full presence on the inside, we are orphans no more. We know that we are not alone. The true existential panacea.
And then, the ripping apart.
This is a film about Paweł Pawlikowski‘s parents, on again – off again lovers their entire lives. He says they were wonderful people apart, and a disaster when they were together. But they loved each other with a ferocity and tenderness that never became less, only more.
Wiktor and Zula – their names the film lovers inherited – presented a never-ending puzzle for Pawlikowski. So he made a film about their love – if not literally about their story. You could feel the current of truth in artifice throughout. It has that defiant spirit of divine intervention hidden beneath a beautiful, silent, terrible mistake.
It’s 1949 post-War Poland, Wiktor (a moving Tomasz Kot) is a sophisticated, reserved, mellow man, dedicated to his job – he is a ethnomusicologist, and pianist, travelling with a fellow colleague (and occasional lover, perhaps), gathering folk songs and plotting a traveling dance troupe, one that would be a vehicle to move more around and out of a state bound by stasis and communist dogma. Travelling by ruins of a church, one that did not get restored, as these are atheist times, the two musicologists listen to an old soulful tune, women’s voices in harmony, “Is this love God-given, or whispered by the devil?”
And that’s the plot, in one verse. The film opens with another folk song, two men playing Pan’s flutes, and wailing about another man on a deathbed because of love.
In this story, the music, and the silence between lovers, tell all.
Amid the grim earnestness of socialist slogans, and sly knowing side glances of city dwellers – the country folk, apparatchiks and ingenues are mixing it up in one grand audition for the troupe, and in walks Zula (incandescent Joanna Kulig), a part of a duet, the sexy part. A charming, curious combo of secrets and extroversion, a faint touch of the con, her instant seductiveness is all about who she is on the inside. Although, Kulig is a stunner, with a lunar beauty that can convey both a blank canvass and a haunted goddess in a blink of a kohl-rimmed eye. Wiktor is stunned. Zula is fidgety. They look at each other in instant kinship, an inexplicable promise of happiness. The sheer joy of being in each other’s presence. She sings a tune from a Russian musical, Serdce, about a girl who is grateful her heart can love so much.
It takes time for them to become lovers, this is a space filled with rehearsals, daily drudgery, political machinations, and the incredible excitement of a blossoming passion. As if they were tuning into each other until they started producing the perfect pitch.
Wiktor and Zula kick off their Eros/Thanatos dance in the toilets, with their first sexual encounter after a particularly successful performance of the troupe in Warsaw. Then comes East Berlin, and he defects, she stays – the troupe’s soloist and sorrowful, Sphinx-like mascot. Next time they meet in Paris, where Wiktor now lives, they are almost as strangers, seeing each other through a different lens. Familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, full of longing – the DNA code of passion.
The toilets become a theme, as churches do, mirrors, twirling skirts and rivers, and songs that go through different incarnations, countries, years, states of mind, body and incarceration, lyrics translated to heartbreaking oblivion. Everything is a refrain, a Greek chorus to the star-crossed lovers – the man quietly ambitious, amendable and artistic, the woman full of raw integrity, blazing talent, and self-defeating pride. He loves her charm and zest for life, she loves his steady ways and strength. Of course, she would become charmless in devastation, and him, cowardly in defeat.
It’s a subtle reminder of how much setting doesn’t matter when love is this true, as the most delicate intimate moments between the lovers happen in the most derelict places. Except that one time they cruise the Seine at night, and then end up literally drunk with love at L’Eclipse. The bar they would play in together.
The cinematography is exquisite B/W light-play, a shadows & luminosity affair of the heart, framing every minute as if it would be the last moment one sees in a lifetime.
Zula is fascinating for Wiktor. He wants to make her fascinating for others too. Particularly the people he craves to impress. This sets the stage for their ultimate downfall, one chess piece of scenery at a time.
Cold War is a love story that talks of the state of being in emigration better than any political film I’ve seen. The 15 years of their love in a Cold War climate, on both sides of the Iron Curtain – a meditation on belonging, roots, and heritage, and most of all, on authenticity.
Before he escapes, she asks him, reluctant from the start to leave: “Who will I be there?”
And there, in Paris, Wiktor starts to colour her around the edges, the chanteuse with a scandalous past (and yes, she did stab her lecherous father, no she did not dance for Stalin), making all that formidable nuance and fragile complexity of Zula suddenly become glamourised caricature – a thing of entertainment as means of survival.
This love between them, an erotic ecstasy, develops through time and separation, and severe hardship, into a different kind of ecstasy, a symphony of souls. It’s as if both lovers become high stakes gamblers, raising the bar of their commitment to one another, and their mutual destruction, in equal measure, to vertiginous heights.
If I would be pushed to describe this eternal relentless pull between Zula and Wiktor, I would say they had an experience of the divine through each other. Otherwise known as love. And leave it at that.
Hope I did them justice, their story, it’s a diamond and a dagger, in one.