MIFF review: Cold War

A searing song for the ages, Pawlikowski has spun a masterpiece. Staggering.

Music is the lifeblood of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s majestic epic in 80-odd minutes Cold War, currently screening at MIFF, and, just like his haunted protagonists, it’s all over the place. Dancing from old Polish peasant songs to their Soviet-sponsored manipulation and then on to the unruly advent of rock ‘n’ roll piercing the slow drawl of jazz in the smoky Paris bars, the erratic shift in musical styles mirrors the fractious reformation of Europe’s shattered remnants post-WWII.

As allies shift and flex in unexpected and not entirely sustainable ways, so too does the bond between silk-suited musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his ballsy young protégé-turned-lover Zula (Joanna Kulig). Equally mesmerising, these kids have the pull of Bergman and Bogart as they skirt around each other dangerously in a time where devotion to the state must come first, and passions that might betray such expectation are best left behind closed doors.

Meeting in a musical boarding house, she is an unlikely perfect fit for his folk preservation quest, faking her background both musical and otherwise and yet clearly in possession of a siren’s beguiling call. Having been dragged from a violent home in which her father, “mistook me for my mother, and I used a knife to show him the difference,” she hopes to forge a new life while he insists on traditional purity in his compositions, resisting pressure to update old songs for new leaders.

As both are tested to the very limits of what they’re prepared to do for freedom, and at what cost, their fates strand them either side of the Iron Curtain. And yet still their bond, at times broken and betrayed, holds tight across the icy divide, caught in a turbulent spiral with only one destination, regardless of the hops across tortured dividing lines over 15 years.

Achingly named for his own parents, Pawlikowski has, in every way, conceived an instant classic with these star-crossed lovers from opposing houses. Rightly securing Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, Cold War is composed entirely of astounding perfect shots as captured in crisp black and white Academy ratio by returning Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal. It’s a film of rare beauty braving darkly swirling undercurrents, an impossible relationship played out against even more impossible politics.

Kulig and Kot are incendiary, setting the whole damn thing alight, the fire in their eyes conveying so much between Pawlikowski’s exacting dialogue and their at-times glacial defences. Love is a battlefield here even if the drums of war have nominally fallen silent, and the musical framework holds true throughout, with even the triumph of a record’s difficult birth no hope for peace. Their final scene together remains seared in my mind, with Pawlikowski’s economically devastating masterpiece a song for the ages.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords