Beyond Borders

The Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, who made Last Resort and My Summer of Love in England in the early 2000s, has arguably entered the most fruitful and creative part of his career. In 2013 he returned to his native country to make Ida, a black-and-white 1962-tale about a young woman entering a convent, that went on to claim the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His latest film, Cold War, is yet another monochromatic mid-20th century tale.

Winning Best Director when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it’s a fine example of how to make a near-perfect film in less than ninety minutes. Set initially in post-war Poland, the story spans fifteen years but it’s not a tale of politics or espionage. Rather this is a turbulent love story between a pianist and singer, whose burning passion for each other never dies even amid frequent arguments and the presence of other partners.

Reputedly inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents’ marriage, Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, who travels the Polish countryside with his lover Irena (Agata Kulesza) looking for musical talent. This soon morphs into Wiktor establishing a state-sponsored school for dancers and singers, set to become an instrument of Communist propaganda. It’s a scheme that introduces him to the blonde-haired Zula (Joanna Kulig), who may sing like an angel but has a devilish temper on her.

As Irena is swiftly jettisoned, Wiktor and Zula become lovers – but events change when the school performs in East Berlin and Wiktor decides to defect by walking past the checkpoint. Zula refuses to come with him, and so these separated lovers must only meet again sporadically across the years. Wiktor winds up in Paris, playing piano in jazz clubs (evocatively depicted by Pawlikowski) and dating a poet named Juliette (Jeanne Balibar). But every time he sees Zula, sparks fly.

If all this sounds unfailingly sweet, it’s not. It’s an anti-romantic tale about two mismatched souls who can’t live with or without each other. But for all the pain that circles around the film, Pawlikowski has created a work of great beauty, thanks in part to Lukasz Zal’s exquisite cinematography. As wonderful as Pawlikowski’s British-set films were, on this form he should remain in Poland.

Cold War opens on 31 August. For more details, visit Curzon Artificial Eye.

James Mottram

1. All stills from Cold War. Courtesy of Curzon.