Is love the only enduring force we know? by Richard Jones

A look at Cold War  (M)

coldwarIt’s often said that love can transcend any era and any setting.

Even a relatively short movie can depict all sorts of love and longing and with a master director at the helm we’re all drawn along. True to award-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski’s form (he’s already won the best director gong at Cannes for Cold War) this film has one of the best endings I’ve seen for quite a few years. It’s dramatic, beautifully understated and something I didn’t even see coming. It was completely unexpected and an amazing way to round out the 88 minutes.

Very poignant and extremely sad.

The film is shot in black and white perhaps to show us the colourless nature of life behind the Iron Curtain during the oppressive Cold War. Because it starts in 1949 in Poland when Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is scouring the Polish countryside looking for peasants and small town dwellers with some musical or vocal talents. He’s accompanied by another accomplished musician Irena (Agata Kulesza) – Wiktor is a fine pianist in his own right as well as a conductor – and a Communist Party apparatchik Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc).

After Kaczmarek’s boring Party speech to the assembled hopefuls it’s down to the serious business of auditions. Wiktor and Irena are charged with assembling a folk music company. They discover a spirited and animated young woman named Zula (Joanna Kulig) who snares Wiktor’s attentions straightaway. Despite Irena’s objections Wiktor is adamant Zula must be chosen and she progresses to become a star in the touring company. They tour the Eastern bloc as Wiktor and Zula fall in love.

He makes plans to defect to the West not long after they arrive in East Berlin and although he outlines this scheme to Zula she ends up not coming with him.

Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal show us a distraught Wiktor on a freezing winter’s day near Checkpoint Charlie. He’s waiting in vain for Zula to show up. She doesn’t do so, leaving Wiktor to head off to Paris on his own. We skip a few years to the mid-50s where Wiktor is playing piano in a Paris jazz bar. Zula suddenly reappears and their spark is re-kindled.

We knew we were in the mid-50s when Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock blasted out through the L’Eclipse  bar speakers and a little under-the-weather Zula starts her dance up on the bar itself. Next the dance company Mazurek is booked to appear in Yugoslavia. Wiktor inextricably makes the journey to see Zula in action, only to be apprehended by the state secret police and bundled onto a train and sent out of Communist Yugoslovakia.

When they finally get back to Poland – Zula is disillusioned by the fake socialist fashions of the Paris intelligentsia – Wiktor is imprisoned in what looks like a concentration camp. Head shaved he’s eventually pardoned and miraculously gets out.

And how was this achieved. Well, Zula had married apparatchik Kaczmarek (he’d always hankered after her) had a child and they’re all living in Warsaw. The family lives next door to the Polish Minister for the Interior so Kaczmarek engineers a pardon for Wiktor. Still drawn to each other Zula and Wiktor have one last dramatic scene to play.

It’s back to the rural countryside for Pawlikowski’s final scenes and that beautifully constructed ending. Watch out for next month’s Oscar entries in the Best Foreign Language film category. I fancy Cold War will be one to lock in.

Pawlikowski already has one Oscar on his shelves: best Foreign Language director for Ida (2013).

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