Paweł Pawlikowski’s austerely beautiful Cold War begins with villagers performing a folk song about a man standing at his lover’s door, begging her to “open up.” This sense of longing courses through the film: to watch Cold War is to feel oneself hovering on the threshold of something mysterious, inaccessible, and slow to open itself up. That something might be love, for this is a love story, though another folk song poses a question that lingers: “Is this a God-given love, or one whispered by the devil?”
The folk songs are being recorded by Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician and curator of sorts traveling postwar Poland gathering material for a Soviet cultural program. Wiktor seems to possess a genuine love for the music of the people, though he is accompanied by an attaché, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), who is more interested in the project’s political, propagandistic utility. As the two put together a troupe culled from the country’s rural towns, Wiktor falls in love with a performer, Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the two begin a romance that traverses fifteen years and several countries.
The film is deliberately directed and carefully composed in black and white, evoking the lush and sensual atmosphere of Old Hollywood romance and filtering it through the stark, ascetic sensibilities of a European arthouse film. The plot is a simple one, like most love stories, but it is fraught with ambiguities. Pawlikowski reveals information sparingly, favoring stately, lingering shots that prompt us to consider time and space as if through a keyhole, searching the edges and corners of each frame for details that will unlock its mysteries. Little is said, much suggested, and Pawlikowski enlists the audience to fill in the silence.
The central enigma of the film is the curious, even inexplicable love that unites Wiktor and Zula. We see them make love and hear them make sweeping declarations of love – “I don’t want to live without you,” “I am with you till the end of the world,” and so on – but their time onscreen is characterized by conflict. The title of Cold War refers not only to the global power struggle that acts as a backdrop to its romance, but also to the romance itself, the underlying tension that seems to lie omnipresent between its two lovers. Circumstances and different temperaments continually force Wiktor and Zula apart; the mystery that lingers in the mind after the credits roll is what continually draws them together. They are both beautiful people, but sexual attraction alone seems insufficient to account for the way they chase each other back and forth across the iron curtain or the way their entire lives seem to revolve around the ebb and flow of their love. Political upheavals, births, marriages to other people, artistic successes and failures – everything else comes and goes in the periphery of Wiktor and Zula’s love, as they come together, fight, grow distant, run away from each other, and reunite years later, over and over again.
“Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love,” one character claims, and this is both true and false of Cold War, in which a love affair of fifteen years passes in less than ninety minutes. The film’s first act proceeds at a relatively normal pace, detailing the circumstances of Wiktor and Zula’s initial meeting in Poland and the formation of the performing troupe. However, after an abortive first escape attempt, during which Wiktor crosses over to the West and Zula stays behind in the East, Pawlikowski structures his story as a series of increasingly fleeting vignettes tracking the two characters’ travels around Europe over the course of a decade. There is something alarming about the way the passage of time speeds up as the film goes on. Happy moments are abruptly cut short, years pass in seconds. Wiktor and Zula fritter away their time together with arguments while Kronos devours their love and their lives rush on, ever swiftly and inexorably, to death. There is something apt about the way Wiktor and Zula’s love sends them hurtling to the grave, and not just because of Freud’s “little death.” Per Rosenstock-Huessy in The Christian Future or The Modern Mind Outrun, “Eros is, as the Greeks knew, our first meeting with death. A man who loves begins to die.”
The passage of time reaps other victims in Cold War, which sees the simple, pastoral beauty of the rural past give way to visions of modernity, and gloomily intuits that something indefinable has been lost along the roadside of progress. The film opens with unvarnished peasant songs, subsequently repurposed as blatant Communist propaganda; when Wiktor crosses over to Paris, he plays in smoky jazz clubs and sits in a dark studio, composing musical scores for horror films. By the film’s conclusion, Zula is singing kitschy mariachi music back behind the iron curtain, accompanied by an array of Poles decked out in ersatz sombreros. At the end of the performance, she stumbles offstage and hurries to the restroom to vomit. “We welcome tomorrow,” reads a banner that Kaczmarek wants displayed at the country estate where the troupe has its rehearsals. The man putting up the banner falls off the ladder before he can complete his task.
In contrast to the two artists around whom the film revolves, Kaczmarek seems simple and banal: a mere cog in the political machine, unconcerned with beauty or love. However, he is moved by the troupe’s first performance, declaring Wiktor a “genius,” and he carries on the program after his departure. Surely, there are political reasons to do so, yet one senses that he has become a believer of sorts in the beauty of the music. In an early scene, it is Kaczmarek who finds an aged, abandoned church in the wilderness. Seeing Christ’s eyes staring at him out of an otherwise crumbled mural, he seems to intuit something sublime, and responds with clumsy reverence by removing his hat.
This empty, ancient, unused church is the only sign of religion we see in Cold War. Each time the film returns to this setting, Pawlikowski points his camera up and out through the open, collapsed ceiling into the sky, as if aching with longing for something eternal and transcendent: something above the earth, beyond the material world and its ceaseless march of time. Religion is an entry point into the transcendent reality that makes immanent reality meaningful, a way to access the eternity that makes sense of the temporal, but the church is absent from the secular age that Cold War depicts. One propagandistic musical number, in a cathedral-like auditorium, hijacks the aesthetic of religion to sing the praises of Stalin, raising a massive image framing him as a kind of secular savior.
Yet Zula tells Wiktor matter-of-factly that she believes in God, and while he never says he does, both seem to long for the relief of eternity while they are stretched on their own crosses. Rosenstock-Huessy tells us in The Christian Future that reality is cruciform, for “Our existence is a perpetual suffering and wrestling with conflicting forces, paradoxes, contradictions within and without. By them we are stretched and torn in opposite directions, but through them comes renewal.” It is supremely fitting that the film concludes at a literal crossroads, for its lovers are forever torn between past and future, East and West, in a modern world that offers little respite from such a crucifixion. In this epoch, there is a church, but no clergy; chapels are relics, ruins. Nevertheless, it is to these ruins that Wiktor and Zula finally turn. With no priest to officiate, they make their wedding vows to each other, under the eyes of no one but God. Yet the film still deals in contradictions and paradoxes. In the final minutes of their life on earth, Wiktor and Zula vow to love each other “till death do us part,” but it is precisely in death that their love finds its final consummation, only imperfectly recalling the truth that Christ overcomes death – that, per Rosenstock-Huessy, death is “the gateway to the future, to new life.” Wiktor and Zula have faith enough to believe in a great reconciliation beyond the grave, but not faith enough to remain on their crosses until all is finished.