A broken love story about broken people in a broken country, Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is nothing if not true to its title. Barren even in its fleeting moments of joy, and emotionally inaccessible to the extreme, the film is dark enough to make the director’s Oscar-winning “Ida” feel like a frivolous comedy. And yet, as irreparable as these characters might seem, there’s something beautiful about watching them, in less than 90 minutes, try to fix each other over the course of 20 years — to become whole at any cost, long after they’ve forgotten what that really feels like.
Romance must have been hard to find in post-war Poland. We meet Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) in 1949. A wiry music conductor who’s taken a job at a folk-music academy, Wiktor drives around the remote tundras of the country’s outer rim with his recorder, searching for signs of life. Fresh recruits. Any sort of surviving talent. The first five minutes of the movie unfold like a post-apocalyptic episode of “American Idol,” a successful audition rewarded with nothing more than a hot meal and a place to sleep through the brutal winter nights. “We welcome tomorrow!” proclaims the banner that’s almost draped over the school’s entryway (almost because the guy hanging the sign falls off his latter and splats on the stone below).
Of all the kids that come to audition, Wiktor is most taken with a scrappy blonde called Zula (Joanna Kulig, brilliant in Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents”). She can sing okay, but she looks like she stumbled out of an early Bergman movie. Wiktor insists that he wants her for her talent, but Zula knows how men work, and this wouldn’t be the first time that a significantly older man took an interest in her — rumor has it that she killed her own father. Cut to: The mismatched couple rolling around the tall grass together and pledging eternal devotion. So begins one of the most elliptical romances this side of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” as these two lost souls are frozen to each other for life.
There’s no explanation for it, really. Not much hope, either. Crossing your fingers for a classic love story to sprout between them is like waiting for a weed to sprout into a lilac. Reuniting with “Ida” cinematographer Lukasz Zal” and replicating that film’s hyper-crisp digital black-and-white, Pawlikowski never gives us any kind of traditional motivations for why these two people should be together — any kind of color behind the blunt truth of it. The age difference doesn’t help us make sense of things, even as Zula grows older while Wiktor stays in place. Likewise, the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio doesn’t gives his characters any chance to escape each other.
All the same, one of them is always trying to escape something. They’re never sweet, they’re sometimes violent, and the actors steadfastly refuse to cheat the script by offering more emotion than then Pawlikowski and his co-writers (Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski) have afforded them. They’re always in exile, even on native soil. Running away doesn’t fix the fact that they’re ruined. Maybe that’s something only Wiktor and Zula can explain to each other. They have to know that it can’t work out — their future is written in the words to the forlorn song that Zula is always singing, first at the folk academy and later in nightclubs across Europe.
It’s a brave thing, to tell a story by omission, but Pawlikowski almost pulls it off. Edited within an inch of its life and punctuated with a number of black pauses, “Cold War” feels like a sweeping romantic novel where every other page has been ripped out, jagged flaps of paper still poking out of its spine. It’s the CliffsNotes of the CliffsNotes of an epic romance, and it feels like it was conceived that way from the start.
The film traces the divide between personal and political identities by cutting out the difference. Alone and together, Wiktor and Zulu’s relationship stretches from Poland to Germany to Yugoslavia to France and back again, but it often isn’t up to them — or easy when it is. And it gets a little bit harder every time they choose each other over a country. Pawlikowski shoots the City of Lights so luminously that you can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to leave it, an observation so obvious that it confuses someone to ask it aloud. Naturally, Wiktor doesn’t have much in the way of an explanation.
“Cold War” only grows more clipped as it goes along; the bigger the plot twist, the less Pawlikowski wants to dwell on it. The more that happens to Wiktor and Zula, the less it matters — only the music is there to bind it together, the movie finding its staccato rhythm through the couple’s shared interest (the soundtrack evocatively moves from traditional folk tunes to jazz and swing and rock). If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the beat that the movie would be following if its lovers could ever be in sync.
And then it ends with a shiver, everyone still waiting for a tomorrow that has yet to come. The abrupt finale arrives with the softness of a cold boot, kicking us away from the characters and back to the empty spaces that formed between them, but it might resonate more with native Polish viewers than it does for the international crowd that carried “Ida” to Oscar glory (there were more than a few tears from the hometown contingent at the film’s Cannes premiere). “Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love,” says a poet who Wiktor sleeps with along the way. But “Cold War” takes that a few steps further, past any hope of warmth. For Pawlikowski, love and time are inextricable, and neither can ever be taken back.
“Cold War” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it later this year.