If every tragedy ends in death and every comedy in marriage, then technically speaking Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War might have to be considered the latter. As the film’s tumultuous, multi-decade, continent-spanning love story nears its conclusion, Wiktor (the stoic Tomasz Kot) and Zula (the beautifully wounded Joanna Kulig) do indeed find themselves kneeling together before an altar. But this ersatz wedding—lonesome, silent, held in the ruins of a country church—suggests something rather more tragic. After passing through decades of calamity, often collaborating in each other’s misery, these lovers seem to settle for life together amid the rubble.
To begin at the beginning: It’s 1949, in rural Poland, and Wiktor Waski is a musician and conductor tasked with organizing a national folk-music ensemble. In the wake of the Second World War, the Soviet-allied Communist government in Warsaw sees this patriotic undertaking as a useful propaganda vehicle, and it gets fast-tracked.
Zula, a reckless youth running from a troubled past, arrives as a hopeful in Wiktor’s talent search, in a sort of postwar Polish version of American Idol. Stumbling through her audition, she nevertheless captivates him. He takes her under his wing, and, soon enough, the two become lovers. But when Zula fails to follow through on the couple’s plan to escape across the Iron Curtain, they take new lovers and make new compromises to survive. They try to put their passion behind them, but never stop orbiting each other. As Zula criss-crosses Europe, first as a touring musician and then as a half-hearted defector, they keep colliding in dim, smoky corners of the divided continent for brief snatches of passionate, if stormy, reunion.
It’s a plot that the director of 2013’s Academy Award-winning Ida has had on his mind for a while. Pawlikowski calls it “the matrix of all love stories”; it is also, with some details swapped, the story of his parents. As with Ida, his newest film uses a palette of greys and a square aspect ratio to evoke the atmosphere of 1950s Poland, a society still emerging from total war and caught in the vise of the geopolitical struggle between East and West.