A tale of love, loss and music in Cold War Europe

BEIRUT: Boy meets girl. Girl leaves boy. Boy tries to recover girl, or vice versa. Girl and boy are eaten in a zombie apocalypse. Is there any story less compelling, yet so often rehearsed, as that of star-crossed love?Films like Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” remind you of the difference between storytelling and narrative habit.

Co-written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki with Piotr Borkowski, “Cold War” tells the story of Wiktor and Zula. The film begins with a blaring bagpipe tune, then opens on the hands and faces of the musicians, farmers standing against a grey countryside.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is among a small team of musicians driving around rural Poland in the wake of World War II, recording folk music for a state-sponsored music education and performance project. His temperament is lodged somewhere between those of his two colleagues.

On one hand there’s Irena (Agata Kulesza), an urban intellectual interested in the music for itself.

On the other there’s Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). A political commissar in his mentality, he’s one of those parochial patriots who found a career in the communist party.

Wiktor and Irena are tasked with staffing the new Mazowsze School of folk music and dance. It’s while interviewing rural musicians that they meet Zula (Joanna Kulig).

The audience already recognizes her a pretty blonde who talks a talented vocalist into auditioning together (performing a duet version of the folk tune “Two Hearts”) in order to increase her own chances of getting into the program.

Ambition pays off.

Wiktor is smitten, though, as Irena points out, the other vocalist in the duet is much more accomplished.

He insists Zula has something and ought to be admitted into the program too - though it turns out she’s not a rural musician at all.

Rumor has it, in fact, that she murdered her father.

“He mistook me for my mother,” Zula informs Wiktor when he asks what happened to her old man. So I used a knife to show him the difference ... Don’t worry. He didn’t die.”

When it’s clear the state sees the political utility of Irena’s project, she disappears from the film.

Naturally it’s Kaczmarek who oversees the shape of the Mazowsze folk ensemble project, taking its musicians and dancers on tours of the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc satellites. Wiktor plays along, conducting the orchestra.

By now he’s romantically involved with Zula and, when the ensemble travels to eastern Berlin for a concert, he plans to take her with him when he crosses to the western side a plan he doesn’t abandon after learning that Kaczmarek’s been employing her to spy on him.

The balance of the film follows the extremes to which Zula and Wiktor go to remain together while remaining themselves, a story comprised of a handful of episodes scattered between 1949 and 1964.

“Cold War” is among the titles that have risen to the top of 2018’s cinematic food chain. Starting with its premiere at Cannes, where Pawlikowski took Best Director honors, the film has accumulated festival prizes like a dragnet. In this year of Alfonso Cuaron (who tied an Oscar record with four nods for his own nostalgia-laden black-and-white drama, “Roma”), “Cold War” received three nominations including for best foreign-language film (which Pawlikowski won for his 2015 film, “Ida”) and best director.

Pawlikowski’s movie had its Lebanon debut during the European Film Festival, which wrapped its Beirut leg Monday evening, and is about to commence a limited release at Metropolis-Sofil.

“Cold War” has plenty to recommend it to cinema lovers, romantics too. Immediately striking is the beauty of the photography. (Lukasz Zal, Pawlikowski’s DP has been nominated for the best cinematography Oscar.) Zal also partnered with Pawlikowski to shoot “Ida” but, aside from the black-and-white palette the look of those two films isn’t much alike.

Zal seems equally at home photographing interiors and exteriors whether the mud and gravel strewn Polish countryside or mid-century urban locations in Paris and Warsaw - but it’s the interiors that linger.

In one of the film’s more striking transitions, the scene leaps from the dark streets of Berlin in 1952, where Wiktor crosses into the West, to the stage of a Paris nightclub in 1954, where he’s playing piano in a jazz quartet. It’s one of those moments where admiration for the photography the monochrome image deeply marbled with shadow displaces the story that got you there.

The effectiveness of this scene is compounded by its musicality, and the story’s use of music (folk, jazz and classical) as a narrative cement is among the reasons this art house film can be enjoyed by a non-art house audience. A few of the tunes crop up repeatedly in the story.

Wiktor’s jazz quartet in the Paris nightclub scene, for instance, is performing an arrangement of a folk tune heard early in the film.

For the romantics in the audience most of this stuff may be simple decor - the real draw being Kulig and Kot’s depictions of Zula and Wiktor as they pursue, and flee, one another across Cold War Europe.

Given the story’s structure, it’s hard not to recognize the end of this film to be among the best of 2018.

After returning to a location the camera entered early in the film, Zula and Wiktor step outside and sit in the middle of the frame. After a minute she says, “Let’s see how it looks from over there.”

They walk out of the frame.

Roll credits.

“Cold War” will have a limited run at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil starting Feb. 7.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 05, 2019, on page 12.




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