Filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) was born in Warsaw. He studied at the University of Oxford and teaches film at several universities. It's exceedingly unlikely that an artist with his background would have much in the way of appreciation or patience for "Polish jokes." Which raises the question: Why did he turn his latest creation into one?
Trump's election. The Brexit mess. Cold War is the most recent in a series of high-profile international developments defying logical explanation. The black-and-white historical romance earned Pawlikowski the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And yet, unless I'm mistaken, this is a frustratingly point-free work.
Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, a musicologist who, as the film opens in 1949, is engaged in a project designed to preserve the ancient folk songs of rural Poland. He travels from village to village recording performing peasants. On one such stop, he encounters a bewitching young woman with a haunting voice and a troubled past. Joanna Kulig costars as Zula. Soon after they meet, she informs Wiktor that she's on probation for the murder of her father. "He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference." The two fall madly in love.
The final stage of Wiktor's project involves an "American Idol"-style competition whose winners get to take part in public performances of the tunes he's collected. Here's where things begin to go off the rails. A government toady named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) pressures Wiktor to pump up the show with pro-Stalin propaganda, which he grudgingly does. As a reward, he's permitted to take his production to Berlin for its debut.
He and Zula (they're madly in love, remember) hatch a plan to escape to Paris together after the show. Wiktor makes it to their rendezvous point and waits for "the woman of his life." And waits. Then waits some more. Meanwhile, Zula is inexplicably back at the theater partying with Mr. Toady and his apparatchik pals. It's the first of several roadblocks to bliss that the writer-director arbitrarily places in the couple's path.
His film spans the better part of two decades and is segmented into vignettes. Each offers a glimpse of Wiktor and Zula reconvening passionately — and temporarily — in one of a series of European locales with little or no explanation of what's happened to them between get-togethers. One minute they're dancing to "Rock Around the Clock" on the Left Bank. The next, Zula is confronting a poetess with whom Wiktor has become romantically linked in Yugoslavia.
As lensed by Lukasz Zal, some of these sequences are undeniably striking. That said, none of the film's parts lends much in the way of meaning to the whole. I've watched Cold War multiple times (it's just 89 minutes long but feels infinitely more epic) and regret to report I still have zero idea what Pawlikowski was getting at.
I've read reviews claiming the main characters were modeled on the filmmaker's parents. I've also read Pawlikowski's bio on the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia and other sites. His father was a doctor. His mother taught literature. Relationship issues, sure, but not exactly a tragic saga set against a backdrop of musicology and Stalinist repression. Maybe it'll make more sense next time. Sometimes love is a battlefield. Cold War may leave you feeling like collateral damage.