Director Pawel Pawlikowski is no stranger to brevity. All of his films have clocked in at under ninety minutes each, with an apparent concept of ‘get in, get out’ being employed. His latest effort, Cold War, is no different, coming in at a brisk eighty eight minutes long. I’m not sure exactly why his films are always so short, whether it’s a conscious effort on his behalf, or merely the way the works as filmmaker, Pawlikowski doesn’t want to monopolise too much of your time.
Yet, while this works for films like Ida or My Summer of Love, this extreme brevity robs Cold War of a lot of its impact. Starting in 1949, Cold War follows two lovers as they traverse throughout Europe, intersecting through each other’s lives. These lovers are Zula (a mesmerising Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (a staid Tomasz Kot). They meet when Wiktor auditions a swath of women to sing in a group that he aims to tour throughout Poland, bringing the cultural relevance of peasant life to the masses.
As with Ida, Pawlikowski employs the talent of cinematographer Lukasz Zal to help bring stunning vibrancy to Europe with a black and white perspective. Visually, Cold War is a masterwork. Staging is precise, with sequences full of dancing and singing carrying a respectful level of pomp and pizazz that brings a showman quality to the proceedings. The way that Zal and Pawlikowski frame both Kulig and Kot makes every frame a work of art – it’s easy to lose yourself in the visuals, leaving you wishing that every filmmaker had this level of care and respect for their subjects.
But, visuals alone mean little when the film never affords you the opportunity to emotionally engage with the narrative as it unfurls. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of Polish history is a little bit shabby (especially post WWII history), and, arguably, it is not up to the filmmaker to educate the viewer on world events, but for me, I found I was greatly out of my depth when it came to the political themes running throughout Cold War.
There are three narratives running concurrently within this film – a beautiful love story that never soars, an ode to culture and the immense value that embracing ones’ own culture brings, and then, the unsettled aspect of post-WWII Europe and the effects this has on the citizens of the world. While all three work in harmony, it’s a great shame that Pawlikowski never fully allows the narrative to simply breathe and allow the viewer a moment to gather what is occurring.
Major events occur off screen, and when they do occur on screen, they happen without explanation. Wiktor’s early departure from the singing troupe that he initially leads the charge for comes out of nowhere, at least for me. Later, when Zula and Wiktor meet up in a bar in Paris, they do so without relevance or understanding that there has been communication between the two. It’s perplexing and distancing, instead of embracing you, the film pushes you away.
Which is possibly the point of Cold War. Yes, it’s brief, and yes, it’s dense with thematic relevance, but is that brevity possibly the key? With major events unfurling out of view, is Pawlikowski highlighting the moments of tenderness that Zula and Wiktor share together throughout the years as way of saying, no matter how fast time may move, it’s these moments that will remain with you forever. At the end, I couldn’t help but feel that Cold War was a big screen adaptation of that famous John Lennon line, ‘life is what happens when you are busy making other plans’.
Selfishly, I wanted Pawlikowski to spoon feed me. I wanted the film to do the work for me. Cold War does not reward the lazy viewer, requesting you fill in gaps and moments that it simply does not offer.
Yet, Pawlikowski provides little reasoning why Zula and Wiktor fall in love, seemingly requesting that we take their affection on face value, and requesting that we accept that these people are drawn to each other. This is not to say that Kulig and Kot are not engaging. Kulig in particular delivers a powerful performance that rages and sings, even if we’re given little insight into who Zula is as a person. We’re given even less insight into who Wiktor is, even though Kot’s deceptively vacant expression manages to hide a wealth of emotions. It’s clear that these are characters with deep backstories, it is simply that only the actors were privy to that history.
When it comes to films that utilise historical events alongside a fictional narrative, we’re so used to seeing the same old event being utilised. We’ve already reached critical mass with the amount of holocaust films that have been made, yet they are perpetually used because of the emotional impact that the holocaust carries. So when a film like Cold War comes along that paints a beautiful love story against the backdrop of events that are rarely explored in cinema, then it should be applauded.
When I watched Michael Haneke’s Cache for the first time, I was blatantly unaware of the subtext of the Paris massacre of 1961 that Haneke was exploring. For the many that I’ve recommended Sweet Country to, there has been a large amount of people who are unaware of the history of indigenous Australia, and in turn, may not appreciate the film as great as if they were aware. These are films that are bringing history to life for viewers to engage with.
There is a lot more to Cold War than what I’ve written. I simply do not have the knowledge and understanding to reach a level of appreciation for a film that is clearly a fine work of art. And that’s ok. And, I repeat: I do not believe it is the filmmakers responsibility to educate viewers on history. For this viewer, I’ll do further reading and may possibly appreciate Cold War with more of a cultural understanding on re-evaluation.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki