Well, if you want to sing out, sing out—Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam)
And if you want to be free, be free.
’Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are.
It starts with music, a siren song if you will, as a small group of Polish musicians scour rural villages collecting folk songs. Their purpose is to celebrate their cultural history while locating the best singers and dancers in the land for a touring musical act. For Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), it’s a way to serve the Soviet Union while further exploring his musical passion. For Zula (Joanna Kulig), it’s a chance to leave a troubling past behind. He is tall, dark, and handsome, with a talent for the piano. She is a busty blond with a sultry voice. Naturally, they fall for each other. Too bad the fall is farther than either could have anticipated.
Welcome to Cold War—the latest drama from Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection—a tempestuous love story set in Poland, France, Yugoslavia, and Germany under the shadow of the Iron Curtain. As the old saying goes, “all’s fair in love and war,” but the existential angst accompanying conflict between nations is more than two people could ever overcome. A feeling Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal beautifully visualize in composed black-and-white shots of Wiktor and Zula placed at the bottom of each frame. Above their heads: empty space, enough to dangle the proverbial sword of Damocles.
That inevitability keeps both Wiktor and Zula’s emotions in check—passionate and violent as they may be. An early scene sets the tone: Zula admits to Wiktor that she is ratting on him to his superior. What about, he asks. The usual: Who he is, what he does, is he a good little communist, and does he believe in God. Wiktor feels betrayed, but for Zula, this is the only way she knows how to survive. Does Wiktor blow up at her? Yell, scream or berate her? No, he simply gets up and walks away. Zula follows for a moment, stops, turns around, walks away from him, and jumps into a river.
Much in the same way the Soviets and Americans waged war for decades without firing a single missile, Wiktor and Zula will fight for each other, and with each other, with a similar icy detachment. Their passion, their undying love, is instead conveyed through music.
The movie’s signature song, the Polish folk song “Two Hearts, Four Eyes,” returns time and time again, cementing Zula and Wiktor’s attachment. And like their relationship and the countries to which they flee and return, the song undergoes similar evolutions.
But it’s the invasion of two American songs, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” and “Rock Around the Clock,” that give Cold War its most memorable moments. As Zula and Wiktor drunkenly sway to one and rebelliously kick up their heels to the other, the audience is allowed a moment to soak in the lovebirds’ passion. Wars, politics, and global conflicts matter not in these moments, just the rhythmic gyration of two bodies that have found each other.