Poland 1949, and the Cold War in Europe is really biting, as much as the winter in this rural region where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is travelling with a sound crew, their aim to capture as much of the indigenous song and singers as they can. The idea is to create a folk music production that can tour around the country, and if that does well it can move further afield, bringing Poland's proud heritage to the masses. With this in mind, they record and audition just about everyone who knows how to sing, including one young woman, Zula (Joanna Kulig), who seems a lot more spirited to Wiktor than the others. There's an instant attraction, so naturally she is signed up, but times are hard...
Falling in love, even staying in love, should not be as difficult as the romance depicted in writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War, the follow up to his Oscar-winning drama Ida which he filmed in much the same austere style. It received a similarly warm welcome, critically at least, though a black and white drama shot in Academy ratio was always going to be a hard sell to the mainstream moviegoer, and there was a significant portion of the audience who were going to be sceptical and refuse to be won over by its icy charms. Yet look beyond that chilly surface, no matter how striking Lukasz Zal's cinematography was, and there was a genuine, heartfelt emotion here.
Pawlikowski's intention was to pay tribute to his parents who had lived through the period his two main characters did here - they even shared his parents' names - though the details of their lives were not shared by everything we saw here as he decided to use music to bring Wiktor and Zula together. This was a wise choice, since it represented a more artistic angle to the drama that suited the theme of characters using art to lift themselves out of the drudgery their authorities have landed them in, and when those authorities put pressure on them to conform and betray that muse they so need to follow, it hits all the harder, leading up to a finale that no matter how understated, was like a punch to the guts.
The thing was, with the film looking as it did, you expected the old clichés of the Hollywood movies of the Golden Age to be in force, and though there was the odd bit of sex and swearing (violence was more implied than shown), the conventions of a traditional romantic fiction appeared to be adhered to. Yet when you thought about it, actually examined what was happening, you would see if there was any style this was appealing to it was the old-fashioned weepie, only from that conclusion you were forced to recognise there was nothing in the world of totalitarian regimes that encouraged anything as fragile and precious as love, all it bred were suspicion and hatred, so that real affection was in trouble if it ever tried to thrive under those conditions. And as we saw, it didn't matter if the lovers got together elsewhere.
As their talent for music gives them opportunities, they manage to escape the Communist East for the supposed freedoms of the West, in Paris, but the scars inflicted on them by the boot of oppression on their necks prove too much to overcome. The notion that love conquers all is a sweet one to contemplate, but the fact remains, according to this anyway, if you are existing in a climate that thrives on your fear and paranoia, there's not a snowball's chance in Hell that you will ever find a loving relationship with any hope at all. If Pawlikowski's intention was to make you despise the Cold War as it was politically, he did a very good job, but there was more to it than that; he obviously respected his Polish homeland, yet underneath the longing and melancholy there was an anger that people should be treated this way and not allowed to simply be in love. You could observe that socially or politically, but the warning here was these threats had never gone away, and could raise their heads once again; maybe they already were.
[Featurettes on the music and a making of (in colour!) are among the extras on Curzon's DVD.]