Many years ago I read some advice from a film critic that went something like this: if you’re not watching foreign films, you’re not experiencing the human condition in large parts of the world. I took that advice to heart. Since then, I’ve upped the number of foreign language films I see, and I feel richer for it–in mind if not in wallet.
After learning that Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski was coming out with a new film, I started counting the days until COLD WAR arrived at a theater near me. It’s now one of five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Can it beat ROMA, the Mexican film that’s already won two Golden Globes–for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron Orozco)? Possibly not. We’ll find out February 24th. But this is what I can tell you about COLD WAR: for starters, who doesn’t love a powerful love story?
It’s 1949. Across a cold, bleak landscape devastated by war, three travelers (two ethnomusicologists, Wiktor and Irena, and a Communist Party official, Lech) search for undiscovered talent and “the music of the people.” A crumbling estate becomes their music academy. They audition and train young performers for a singing and dancing folk troupe. Fresh off a bus, Zula cons her way into her best shot at being noticed at the audition. Her singing isn’t extraordinary–not initially–but she has looks and charisma. Music director Wiktor is the first to notice. He’s talented as well as handsome, and she notices this, too. For Zula, though, loving Wiktor is complicated, aside from the fact he’s one of her bosses. She’s done time for killing her father, or so Wiktor is told. Zula tells Wiktor a slightly different story. “He mistook me for my mother so I used a knife to show him the difference. He didn’t die, by the way.”
Whatever the truth, she’s vulnerable and needs to figure out a way to survive her past and move forward. When Lech, the Community Party official, asks Zula to spy on Wiktor and report back, she feels she has no choice. Her only choice is to tell Wiktor what she’s been doing. So begins a tumultuous relationship that spans fifteen years and both sides of the Iron Curtain, as the two lovers separate and reunite, over and over again.
The reason I know Pawel (we’re on a first-name basis, but only in my imagination) is that I saw his first Polish language film, IDA, a haunting drama set in post-WWII Poland, at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2014. Eighteen-year-old Anna has been raised in a convent and is about to take her vows as a nun. But first, says her prioress, she must visit her only living relative, an aunt who’s a Communist Party judge. Revelations follow, the first being that Anna is not her real name. It’s Ida and she’s Jewish. About a year later, I was on the edge of my seat, watching the televised awards at an Oscar Party. Would IDA, the most deserving of all the foreign films nominated that year, take home the statue? She did! Or I should say, he did, he being my friend Pawel.
COLD WAR isn’t only about the love between a singular man and a singular woman. It’s also about the love of music and performance and freedom of artistic expression. The folk troupe–Mazurek–quickly wins fans. As Lech tells Wiktor and Irena, “I never believed in this folksy stuff, but you made it beautiful.”
Even after Mazurek is co-opted by the Polish Communist government for propaganda purposes–performing songs like “Wonderful Stalin” with a large-scale portrait of Stalin as backdrop–the troupe’s performances remain undeniably beautiful. The dancing. The harmony of the sweet clear voices. The folk costumes. Zula becomes something of a starlet within the troupe, particularly after Lech decides to give her a more Slavic look by bleaching her light brown hair a white blonde. Meanwhile, Wiktor yearns to flee to Paris and artistic freedom. He wants Zula to go with him, but she can’t quite bring herself to leave. She’s uncertain of how she’ll fare in Paris, unsure of her talent. Eventually Wiktor leaves without her.
COLD WAR was written and directed by Pawel, and it was inspired by his parents’ tumultuous love story. His father was a medic–not a musician–and the film ends differently than his parents’ story, but they, too, were named Wiktor and Zula, and their love story also began in Poland and played out there and in Europe against the backdrop of the Cold War.
In the film, there are things Zula and Wiktor won’t do for love–or can’t do, given the Iron Curtain and the political climate–but the things they will do for love you’ll never forget.