Like Ida, Cold War deals with the aftermath and ongoing legacy of the Second World War, although its scope is simultaneously more expansive and more microcosmic than Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film. We start in 1949, in rural Poland, where Wiktor Warsi (Tomasz Kot) and Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza) are scouring the countryside in search of folk singers, dancers and performers for a travelling show based around Polish national music. While auditionining, Wiktor becomes infatuated with Zula Lichon (Joanna Kulig), a young singer, and brings her to Warsaw, where they begin an affair they stretches, on and off, over the next fifteen years, which Pawlikowski details by way of a series of vignettes. While we start in Warsaw, then, the action quickly moves to Berlin, where Wiktor tours the show after pressure from the Stalinist government to make the spectacle more in line with “the World Proletariat,” before escaping to Paris, travelling to Yugoslavia to see Zula, returning to Paris, being interned in a labour camp in Poland for illegal border crossings and, finally, arriving in Paris once again, before the film comes full circle and the two lovers reunite in the Polish countryside where they first met in 1949. By that time, it’s the mid-1960s, and the film has provided a vision of the Cold War era in miniature, with few of the sequences lasting beyond ten minutes, and all of them somewhat provisional and open-ended in spirit, even if they collectively build a fairly expansive picture.
Part of what allows Pawlokwski to move so seamlessly from vignette to vignette is the near-continuous musical substrate of the film, which barely goes for a couple of minutes without immersing us in dancing, singing and instrumentation, creating a musical continuum that may start with the most authentic of Polish folk music, but quickly migrates through Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald before an exuberant sequence set to Bill Haley and the Comets in the penultimate scene. Along the way, Wiktor and Zula also pursue their respective musical careers, as he finds himself moving from showmaster to jazz accompaniest to film scorer, and she gradually builds a profile as one of the most iconic chanteuses of the era. So pervasive is the music that the film quickly becomes a study in atmosphere, and audiovisual combinations, as much as anything else, as Pawlikowski subsumes broader political benchmarks into a keen quest to evoke the changing feelings, atmospheres, ambiences and outlooks attendant upon living in an era that often seems quite homogenized from the vantage point of history. From that perspective, the title is a bit of a misnomer, since part of the point of the film is that the era it depicts was even more defiant of historical categorization than most, never quite cohering into the sum of its parts as we move through vignettes, but never quite jettisoning the sense of an ongoing affective throughline as well.
For the most part, the images in the film follow the music, rather than dictating it, creating a sense that Pawlikowski is inhabiting film conventions more than drawing upon them. As with Ida, the combination of a compressed aspect ratio with black-and-white cinematography exudes a sense of finitude, a preemptive prescience that every way of depicting WWII and its aftermath has been exhausted, and yet has failed to exhaustively pay tribute to the ongoing legacy of that period in European history. Like Wiktor and Irena during their trips to the Polish countryside, then, Pawlikowski often comes off as an ethnographer as much as an artist, sifting his way through the vocabulary of mid-century cinema as if trying to distill its most archetypical images, postures and structures of feeling, only to set them adrift in the present and see how they ramify when taken out of context. While the cinematic lexicon is quite familiar, then, it never feels comforting or reassuring, and often approaches abstraction, not unlike Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, as if Pawlikowski had conceded that the only way to approach this period were to defamiliarise and interrogate its most iconic and original images, rather than try to reproduce their originality.
At its best, that produces something akin to a revisionist cinematic essay about the 1950s and 1960s, since the effect isn’t ultimately all that different from a recombination and abstraction of iconic moments from that cinematic era. Unfortunately, while seeing New Wave passion, or neorealist angst, turned into a classical effect is quite uncanny, it can also come off as a bit vapid, since part of the paradox of the film is that it is quite conventional and conservative in its aesthetic outlook, despite – or perhaps because of – its unabashed nostalgia for the cinematic vanguard of the years it commemorates. The romance, too, is a bit naff, and it’s hard to believe that this ultra-serious rapport between a middle-aged man and a near-teenager would be really tenable outside of this heavily stylized and historicized lens. Try as he might to elude the exhaustion of representations of the post-WWII period by falling back upon pastiche, then, it’s that exhaustion that eventually comes to dominate Pawlikowski’s images, with the result that when Wiktor and Zula finally consummate their relationship, it’s as a gesture of annihilation as much as affection. Reconvening in the rural Polish landscapes that opened the film, they announce their vows before taking a handful of pills to commit mutual suicide. The last moments of the film thus correspond to their last moments on earth – moments that grow more absent and vacant until there is nothing left in Pawlikowski’s frame; no sense of the past, no sense of the future, but just an atemporal absence that even his most stylized and self-referential gestures can’t finally fill.