Every love affair requires a border crossing. The person you see across a crowded bar, or meet at a dinner party, or find on a dating app is another country altogether—maybe a nice place to visit, but do you really want to live there? To find out, you must first put a foot outside your own territory. And after that, falling in love means blurring the lines on your personal map. Where does your country leave off and your beloved’s begin? It can be delightful to merge nations and make a home right in the middle. Yet people, like countries, can be stubborn, unmanageable things. When two people lose sight of each other, sometimes they must redraw the borders around them to find what they’ve lost. And sometimes, when someone has hurt you too much, you need to build a wall between you and the other and call it a day, becoming a nation of one once again.
The Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a story of lovers crossing borders of all sorts, including literal national ones. It’s a story of two people finding each other, almost miraculously, and falling into the deepest kind of love, smudging the line between their individual selves—but there are also long separations and passionate rekindlings, abandonment and rapprochement. This century is admittedly still young, but Cold War is one of its most romantic films, and it seems likely that, eighty years from now, people will still be watching it, thrilling to it, crying over it. It is set—in Paris and Berlin, and in Poland and Yugoslavia—between the late forties and the midsixties, yet in another sense the movie is a time and country unto itself, with a total population of two.
Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot, is a musician traveling the Eastern European countryside, circa 1949, with Irena (Agata Kulesza), an ethnomusicologist who may or may not be a romantic partner as well. The duo are hunting for sounds—not new sounds but old ones: they’re in charge of putting together a troupe of performers who will help preserve rural musical traditions in danger of being lost forever. They travel from village to village, collecting timeworn songs that still somehow sound dazzlingly alive. At one point, a young girl with an unseasoned voice as robust as a root vegetable sings a mournful folk ballad: “Dark eyes, you are crying because we cannot be together.” The girl herself has enormous, searching eyes, too old for her face; even so, she is too young for this desolate song, as weathered as antique linen.
But Pawlikowski and his cinematographer, Łukasz Żal, working in lustrous black and white, have already shown us something of the country landscape where singers like this girl live—roads crusted over with icy snow, chickens scrabbling about in hopes of locating a patch of grass—and while this geography is astonishingly beautiful, it also presents clear challenges. There’s no doubt that the girl with the unpolished but muscular voice will grow into the sadness of this song: it is waiting for her with open arms.
Our story will leave this particular girl behind, but not the song. We’ll hear it again, several times: At one point it will be sung by a chorus of women wearing traditional country finery, in a dignified yet oddly fiery theatrical performance. Later we’ll hear it in a dusky Paris jazz club, this time sung by a sophisticated city woman with a blond pageboy haircut; she was formerly a member of that chorus but has since made the almost unbearable sadness of the song her own. That woman is Zula—played, superbly, by Joanna Kulig—but when we meet her, she is as far from that jazz club as you can imagine. As Wiktor and Irena search the countryside for folk-music specimens—they’re accompanied by an officious manager type, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), who will keep reappearing in the story like a hardy mushroom—they spot a radiant, ambitious young woman amid a bevy of nervous hopefuls. Wrapped in a sturdy wool coat, her pale corn-silk hair twisted into a single braid with winsome schoolgirl bangs, she sings her sweet, simple song, in a duet she has convinced another singer to spontaneously pull together with her. Her features are disarmingly round and pliant, but her eyes are alert; she looks wholly innocent at first glance and nakedly calculating at second. During the duo’s performance, Irena takes notes, sternly, and promptly dismisses them. But Wiktor’s eyes never leave Zula’s face.
He calls her back: “Excuse me, miss with the fringe. What else have you got?” “To sing?” she responds, knowing full well what he means but already spinning the first threads in her web of sexual flirtation. Wiktor is a goner.
“Once you know the real story that inspired Cold War, it’s easy to understand why the filmmaker idealizes these two restless, complicated souls, seducing us into loving them as he does.”
Zula, smart and gifted, lands a star spot in the troupe. It is also rumored that she killed her father. (Later, she clears up the misconception, asserting that he’s not dead: “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference.”) And she has designs on Wiktor from the start, perhaps because she cannily sees him as an excellent rung on the ladder up and out of dismal country life—or maybe because she is truly falling in love with him. The truth, as it so often is, is probably a mingling of reasons. Wiktor has a face that’s half city gentleman, half bruised-up boxer. No wonder Zula’s eyes are full of him, and vice versa. The camera loves the two of them passionately, separately and together.
Once you know the real story that inspired Cold War, it’s easy to understand why the filmmaker, as well as his camera, idealizes these two restless, complicated souls, seducing us into loving them as he does. With the film, Pawlikowski is presenting a version of his own parents’ volatile, on-again, off-again forty-year relationship; the movie is dedicated to them, though it’s more about the spirit of their connection than it is a strict re-creation. “It’s the ghost of my parents, in a way, of their complicated relationship,” Pawlikowski said in a 2018 interview.
His parents met in 1948. His mother had run away from home to become a ballerina, though she came from a middle-class Polish family, not a depressed rural village. His father was studying to be a medic—Pawlikowski wrote the character of Wiktor as a pianist and conductor, as a way of adding the dynamics of music to the story. The director’s parents repeatedly split and reunited during the first ten years of their relationship. Pawlikowski, their only child, was born during one of those reconciliations, in 1957, and grew up in Warsaw. In 1968, his parents divorced, only to reunite years later in Germany, when both were married to other people. They divorced their respective spouses and remarried. Both died in 1989—still together—just before the Berlin Wall came down.
“In the end, with all of these changing landscapes, and politics, and people, they just had each other,” Pawlikowski said in another interview. “They ended up living together in Munich, too tired to fight, and very ill. So in the end, they were just kind of like a doddering old couple, but totally in love with each other, and holding hands. They were just the most tender, touching couple. Again, knowing that there’s nothing in the world more precious, or important, or stable than each other.”
Pawlikowski thought about, and lived with, his parents’ story for years before he even thought of using it as a springboard for a movie. After their deaths, he has said, “their absence started being very present in my life. And I thought, What an amazing couple! And a disastrous couple.”
The film’s Wiktor and Zula are similarly disastrous—and amazing. Their story unfolds over just fifteen years, and it is bittersweet in its own wildflower way. As the folk troupe grows more and more successful, Wiktor becomes increasingly distressed by the government’s efforts to control the content of its songs and performances. He devises a plan: he and Zula will escape to the West—to Paris—via Berlin, at the time still an open city. But the two are separated, then reunited, then separated again, over and over, sometimes for geopolitical reasons and sometimes for deeply personal ones. Music is with them every minute, even when it’s silent. It brings them together, mostly, though it also breaks them apart: a version of that mournful country love ballad, with new words written by Wiktor’s poet ex-lover, inflames Zula’s jealousy and forces one of the couple’s deepest rifts. From song to song and from country to country, they fight, they betray, they cling to each other like abandoned orphans. Berlin, Paris, Warsaw: no city can hold them together for long, though the borders imposed by communism aren’t necessarily more rigid than the ones they draw for themselves with their quarreling, their jealousies, their resentments.
And if life in the Eastern Bloc was generally filled with hardships, in some ways the most completely Western city, Paris, is the cruelest for the two lovers. It’s there that Wiktor, abandoned by Zula, makes a life for himself as a musician, spending time with a sophisticated and suitably blasé poet (played by Jeanne Balibar). He’s doing okay—he’s in Paris, after all—yet his face and bearing, so composed on the surface, seem haunted, suggesting he has tried, with no success, to harden himself against Zula. And then she appears, almost mystically, as if summoned by the gods from the Paris grisaille.
It has been years since he has seen her. The schoolgirl fringe, the messy single braid are gone. She wears a dark coat and heels, a new uniform for a new adult life, one that Wiktor doesn’t share. He stares at her from the other side of a café table. He asks her if she’s with someone; she asks him the same. The answer for both is yes. Wiktor is the first to pose the essential question: “So, are you happy?” She answers him by not answering.
“Pawlikowski is so alive to the lovers’ faces that it seems he has planned the whole movie around them.”
Pawlikowski is so alive to the lovers’ faces that it seems he has planned the whole movie around them. In this first Paris scene, Wiktor looks older, a bit weary. But as he gazes at Zula, refound and also somehow newfound, his eyes look as if they’re reflecting the sun. Pawlikowski shows him looking at her, and then her looking at him. Very rarely do the two appear together in the same shot. We’re not merely voyeurs of their on-and-off liaison, we’re its humble, helpless servants, having been drafted blissfully into its service. We see what Wiktor sees; we feel what he feels. And when we see this new Zula, we see not a smart, scheming girl but a woman whose face has been softened, not hardened, by worry.
Kulig’s face is a wonder, capturing the lunar gradations of Zula’s moods and feelings throughout the film, her vulnerability, her flashes of anger, her desire to put things right even as she doesn’t know how to. When Wiktor tries to understand why she never showed up at their arranged meeting place in Berlin for their escape to the West, she answers with gutting frankness, “I wasn’t up to it, wasn’t good enough,” although an unspoken footnote to her answer may be that she knew she couldn’t do it without being caught, which would have endangered them both. Wiktor doesn’t understand and presses further. “Not as good as you, and in general,” she says.
Pawlikowski’s use of black and white serves this story perfectly, but perhaps it serves Kulig’s face best: her emotional colors comprise every crushed-pearl shade of gray. Pawlikowski’s previous film, 2013’s Ida—in which a young woman, about to become a nun, confronts the secrets of her family’s past—was also shot in black and white. And like Cold War, it was presented in one of the old-fashioned squarish ratios (Ida is 1.37:1; Cold War, 1.33:1)—let’s call them the most wistful of formats, because wistfulness must be distinguished from nostalgia. Pawlikowski, who was taken to England by his mother at the age of fourteen, began making television documentaries there in the eighties, though his life, like those of his parents and his Cold War characters, has been one of mutable borders. His 2004 film My Summer of Love won a BAFTA award, for best British film; shortly thereafter, his Russian wife died suddenly, and he took several years off to see their teenage children through school. After that, he lived for a time in Paris, where—with a cast and crew from France, Poland, the United States, and Britain—he made the 2011 thriller The Woman in the Fifth, starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. But Pawlikowski has said that he didn’t feel at home in Paris, and that he was still grieving for his wife. So he returned to Poland, to a place he saw as “solid ground,” and that is where he made Ida.
In addition to increasing his profile internationally and winning the Oscar for best foreign-language film, Ida cleared the path to Cold War. Pawlikowski knew he didn’t want to approach his parents’ story as if he were making a biopic. And because the structure of Ida is somewhat, as the director has put it, “elliptical,” he felt better prepared to tell the ambitious, zigzagging love story of Cold War. “Most biopics are usually quite awful,” he has said. “Most scenes are about explaining, and showing what the cause-and-effect is.” Films like Cold War and Ida, he has said, “let the audience fill in the gaps.”
The faces of the lovers—bereft or joyful, clouded or radiant—tell the whole story of Cold War. The world’s borders are always in flux, though you could argue that the divisions in post–World War II Europe and the Soviet Union were particularly volatile: a border suddenly opened or closed could set off an explosive charge in the life of one person, or of a family. That blast could ignite change for the better—or it could kill you. When the line between one country and another can shift overnight, where, exactly, is home? Wiktor and Zula find it and lose it, again and again, in each other’s eyes. Their gaze becomes our country too.