An Eastern Bloc(ked) Romance in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 'Cold War’

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Tomasz Kot as Wiktor and Joanna Kulig as Zula in 'Cold War.' (Opus Film)

Years after Polish jazz pianist Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot) walks across the border from East to West Germany, “Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby” drifts across the dance floor of a busy barroom. This jazzy song, sung by Louis Jordan, contains within it the main theme of Paweł Pawlikowski’s quasi-musical, Cold War: the question of togetherness.

Zula (Joanna Kulig), "the woman of his life," was supposed to accompany Wiktor on that border crossing, but—for reasons she barely elaborates on and may not understand herself—did not. In this film, the Academy Award-winning director of 2013's Ida sets two tense conflicts in relief against each other. Wiktor’s and Zula’s on-again, off-again relationship plays out against the backdrop of the first half of the Cold War, from 1949 through the late 1960s.

Tomasz Kot as Wiktor and Joanna Kulig as Zula in 'Cold War.'
Tomasz Kot as Wiktor and Joanna Kulig as Zula in 'Cold War.' (Opus Film)

The couple is caught in the limbo of a political era defined by absolutes. Their passion for each other, accompanied by feelings of jealousy and ennui, is complicated by the inflexible dictates of Communism or, alternately, influenced by the liberal West’s idea of freedom. Neither of the lovers is an artful negotiator or willing to compromise. So the film becomes an episodic record, over time, of their coupling, uncoupling and recoupling on both sides of that East-West line.

While the characters’ emotions are often troubled (Wiktor) or vexing (Zula), Pawlikowski directs Cold War with the graceful hands of a symphony conductor. There’s a lightness, an ease, with which he has assembled the film, even when he includes depictions of trauma and its aftermath.

Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in 'Cold War.'
Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in 'Cold War.' (Opus Film)

Aiding Pawlikowski's skillful direction is black-and-white cinematography by Lukasz Zal (which rivals the work of Sven Nykvist, who shot some of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest black-and-white films).


Cold War is filled with remarkably staged scenes that linger in the viewer's consciousness for days. In one, Zula declares her undying love for Wiktor in a summery field along a river. But an argument splits the couple apart; she follows him briefly, curses at him, then turns and jumps into the water. Concerned, Wiktor returns, the camera taking on his point of view. He (and we) see Zula floating on her back, only the circle of her round face exposed as she sings to him and up at the sky.

Throughout Cold War, Kulig gives a performance James Dean would have envied. Her behavior is impetuous, whimsical, illogical and seldom accounted for. She's a talented, charismatic singer who’s utterly indifferent to her art. It’s a vehicle that keeps her moving, but because this isn’t an American film, she lacks focus and ambition. Zula loves Wiktor no matter where they are, and yet she can’t settle down with him in the West. She fluctuates between knowing and not knowing her own mind.

Joanna Kulig as Zula in 'Cold War.'
Joanna Kulig as Zula in 'Cold War.' (Opus Film)

Pawlikowski embraces his characters' complexity by refusing to reduce their story to a standard melodrama. Their emotions move from tenderness to friction to rage to longing and then, unexpectedly, become the cinematic equivalent of a poem.

In another sequence, Pawlikowski shows a desiccated fresco on a church wall before pointing the camera at a hole blown through the wall during the war. No one standing in the ruins comments on what they’re seeing, but the image resonates as we begin to see how the government and its citizens respond to the damage.

Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in 'Cold War.'
Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in 'Cold War.' (Opus Film)

Survivors of World War II, Wiktor and Zula can’t figure out how to repair themselves or each other. And neither side of the political divide can help them after they’ve been subjected to so much harm.

Such narrative elisions are part of Pawlikowski's strategy. By leaving things unsaid, the director establishes the internal logic held between Wiktor and Zula, of that unique couple. Their hermetically sealed romance may not make rational sense to the audience—but that’s the point. Love is a private language.

'Cold War,' opens Friday, Jan. 18 at Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema.