You can imagine what the movie poster would look like for “Cold War” if it actually was the classic 1950s movie it resembles. Picture a couple, embracing passionately against a torn map of Europe, with a tagline emblazoned above them: “The Iron Curtain kept them apart — but couldn’t extinguish their passion!”
But, in fact, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a new movie that looks like it was made 60 years ago. The lustrous black-and-white cinematography and full-frame aspect ratio (like his previous film, “Ida”) makes it look like a Criterion Collection edition. And maybe someday it will be. “Cold War” is a seductive and complex romance for the ages.
The film begins in 1949 Poland, newly liberated from the Nazis. A group of musical ethnographers are traveling the countryside, recording the folk songs of rural Poles. These ancient songs likely had to be silenced during the German occupation, and from the mouths of ordinary farmers and laborers they ring with anguish and joy once again.
Collecting these songs isn’t purely academic. Communist Party officials are organizing a performance of these “people’s songs” for their own ends. They enlist one of the musical ethnographers, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) as composer, and audition a group of fresh-faced young singers for the show. Among them is Zula (Joanna Kulig), who despite being a girl from the sticks exudes a film-star magnetism.
The shows are a hit, and soon the group is touring Poland, then Europe. Under the watchful eye of the Communist official Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the songs become less about love and rural life and more about Stalin and the joys of income redistribution. Offstage, Zula and Wiktor are falling in love, and plotting to defect. But when the tour stops in Berlin, only Wiktor crosses the border. Zula stays behind.
In under 90 minutes, “Cold War” charts a full 15 years in their love affair, hopping from one European city to another as the lovers reunite and then separate, and then reunite again years later. The cinematography beautifully evokes the look and feel of bygone Europe. Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lucasz Zal are clearly students of European cinema of the time; a dance sequence in a Paris nightclub, with Wiktor and Zula drunk on wine and love, has the ragged passion of French New Wave.
There’s rarely a wasted line or shot. The Academy Award-nominated Pawlikowski (the movie also received a nod for best foreign language film) immediately gets to the emotional truth of each scene. At times it almost feels like the movie is moving too fast — we want to stay in this world as much as Wiktor and Zula want to linger together.
While the Iron Curtain divides them physically, what really keeps them apart is time. As they grow older, they never quite fit together as well as they once did. The once-dashing Wiktor becomes a haggard jazz pianist in Paris, loving the city but never quite belonging. The fresh-faced Zula becomes a smoky-eyed celebrity, then a boozy has-been. The performances by Kulig and Kot are extraordinary, suggesting their characters’ long arcs over the years with minimal exposition needed.
It seems like this love story can only end in tragedy, but which kind of tragedy is it? Will the lovers be doomed by Communism, or by themselves? Like the great old movie romances, “Cold War” packs a full range of emotions into its narrow frame.