In the bleak years following World War II, there isn't much that could raise the spirits of the Poles (now under Soviet domination, after having had their country raped by the Nazis), except perhaps music. Hard-scrabble farmers and villagers sing old songs of broken hearts, sounding as if they'd been dug from the soil. Wiktor, a music anthropologist, eagerly records them, hoping to document an authentic, timeless sound.
Holding auditions for parts in his new troupe that will perform folk songs and dances, he spots a comely young blonde, Zula. She may not have the best vocal range of those trying out, but she sure has something – it's evident in the curl of her lips, her tussles of hair, her languorous movements. There is also an air of mystery about her – did she actually kill her father, as some reports suggest?
So begins "Cold War," a new film from director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose last picture, "Ida," won the Oscar in 2015 for Best Foreign Language Film. In that movie, a young novitiate who learns she is actually Jewish leaves her convent to investigate the fate of her family. In a most memorable scene, she removes her shoes, and her nun's habit, and dances with a young man in a jazz club. Music becomes a doorway to other possibilities in life. Music serves a similar function in "Cold War," as a way to survive the suffocating effects of Soviet oppression – or as a means of escape.
As Wiktor's folk troupe tours Eastern Europe, including East Berlin, the dissatisfactions he experiences over the political strait-jacket being tightened around his creativity draw him to look to the West, and to bringing Zula with him.
But their relationship, while passionate, is hardly straightforward. Zula is flighty, given to drink, and when she explodes on the dance floor, gyrating to Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," she pours herself into the arms of any nearby dance partner. Despite Wiktor's invitation to cross the border with him, she does not. And so begins a long-distance attachment that transcends politics, musical genres, and their own mismatched temperaments.
The story was inspired by the director's parents, who got together, split up, married other people, then got back together; it seems they couldn't bear to be together, or apart. Wiktor and Zula have a similar push-pull, and even when we see them sharing a bed with someone else, we know that must be a temporary refrain. The life force that attracts the two of them is indomitable.
Winner of the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Poland's entry for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "Cold War" is one of the year's best movies, even despite a third act that is more muted than this fiery couple would suggest is in their cards.
Pawlikowski has a gift for letting the camera capture the intimacy of moments regardless of crowd size. The film is elegantly shot in stunning black-and-white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, producing inky chasms of darkness in which the characters' electric attraction shines.
Joanna Kulig is mesmerizing as Zula, wielding the sultry looks and sounds of a chanteuse with an untamable spirit that awakens Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot. Despite escaping the East, Wiktor is a tragic figure. One can tell part of him was left behind the Iron Curtain, and that aching hole he carries with him delivers a striking lesson: Art and artistic expression may not cure every malady, even a wrongfully chosen love affair, no matter how valiantly pursued.
"Cold War" (distributed by Amazon Studios) opens in theatres on Friday in selected cities. In Polish, German and French with English subtitles. The film is not rated, but contains nudity and sexual situations. 90 minutes.
To watch a trailer for "Cold War" click on the video player below.