Cold War opens on a sequence of two musicians travelling around Poland in a beat up van, recording the folk music of those who had just survived the horrors of World War Two. They sit under on porches and in bars and around breakfast tables, inviting those who have recently lost so much to perform. Pass on the music of times torn from them.
Over the course of the film we’ll hear these songs again. They’ll have been rearranged for the period, sometime choral, sometimes jazzy, swingier, translated maybe, anything to make them more palatable for an audience coming ready to consume. It is important that we see these scenes though. Even though we never return to the villages in which they take place, never again see those contributing their art. While we proceed to see it commercialised and bastardised by those intent on profiting from it, we are reminded never to forget the labour that it was born from.
These recordists are revealed to be working for a Soviet propaganda outfit, working on a way to present the charming, prosperous, agrarian way of Polish life to an audience sceptical of the benefits that Communism has brought the country. There of course are some necessary changes to be made. The cast of this performance needs to be young and attractive and talented. And the songs they sing have to be a little more deferential to Stalin if they want to continue being funded.
Amidst this, the troupe’s pianist and one of the young performers fall in love and embark on a tumultuous lifelong romance that will drive them into and out of each other’s’ arms, and across the continent of Europe. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are extraordinary in the roles, there is a barely constrained tension between them at every moment, you can feel in every scene the magnetism that they must constantly struggle against not to fall into each other and spend the entirety of existence in embrace.
Pawlikowski’s spare camerawork and sparse black and white photography elevate their forms to the iconic. Her cutting jawline, his floppy hair, their both soulful eyes become magnified within the smoky clubs and rain-drenched pavements that they in their love and fervour scurry around. They seem together to have achieved aesthetic perfection, and their charms only magnify each other.
They cannot uphold this bliss for too long though, an engagement in East Berlin gives them the opportunity to defect – make their own life together in the West. Only one commits to the decision and so we view the rest of their affair in the glimpsed moments that they are allowed amidst a political reality that only serves to divide them.
The film teases us, gives us glimpses and hopes of resolution. I don’t want to characterise Pawlikowski as a cynic, he seems to take great joy in the frustration. Abruptly cutting to black, ending the moment. A small hold before introducing us to a new period in one of their lives, possibly years later, most likely in a different country, leaving us to anticipate the next time one of them will wonder back in.
But ain’t that the defining feature of romance? Frustration. This pleasurable, infuriating, aching longing that must needs be fulfilled. The frustration that it is literally impossible for two people to literally become one, and all of the things that we put upon ourselves to drive us into each other. Just like it is impossible to sell the simple peasant tune without destroying something fundamental at its core, so too are we unable to inhabit each other without losing a little something of ourselves.
It is a shock to exit the theatre and realise that the running time of the joint is only about 85 minutes. It weaves through its epic scale with such tenderness and intimacy that you feel sure that there must have been more. Yet the economy is one of the things to love. There’s music and dance and such vibrant, buoyant, unrestrained humanity to be displayed, not a moment is wasted.
It is one of cinemas great treats to let you spend time around people who are sure of themselves. You do so too much in real life then you’re like to get hurt. Here they can only wound each other. It’s edifying to be around that, though perhaps in a way that is a little brutal. They’re out there though, reshaping their world in their image, just like the Soviets did to the folk songs, just like they’re going to do in turn later on. Frustrated that, like their love, the changes only complicate things.
Cold War is currently screening in UK cinemas.