Enjoy the Silence
Some Thoughts on Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War
(Note: With the Oscars approaching this Sunday, I realized that some film reviews I’d written over the past year were about to become obsolete. So I’m dumping them here. Hopefully, someone will read them and realize that there are far better movies than Bohemian Rhapsody. Sorry, Rami Malek.)
Think about the person in this world you love the most. Think of the quietest moments you’ve shared with them. What songs were playing in the background during those moments? The muted, far off sounds of music from a cheap set of speakers? The sound of car horns blaring down the avenue below? Grass blowing in the wind as you sit at the edge of a lake? Or maybe, if you’re lucky, complete and total silence. Think about what you’d do to get back to those moments. What kind of life would you build? What would you sacrifice?
This is the question beating at the heart of Cold War, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest film. It’s the story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a musician/anthropologist and the singer he meets when holding auditions for a touring band playing nationalist folk music in 1949 Soviet Poland. While the specifics of this premise sound complicated, I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. This is a movie in which the story lives in the quiet moments between a couple, from quick kisses stolen in the back of a train car to jealous walks home on empty city streets.
The action cuts quickly across the ensuing decade, from the touring company’s early years in war-torn Poland, to a fateful night in bifurcated Berlin, to some lost years in Paris, 20th century Europe’s last bastion of pure, artistic freedom. Yet this progression feels less like movement along a unilateral spectrum of political freedom and more like the elliptical orbit of a planet where gravity changes with the seasons.
“This is a movie in which the story lives in the quiet moments…”
In Poland, Wiktor and Zula can be together, but they are under constant surveillance from the band’s government supervisor (Borys Szyc). Wiktor makes it to Paris, but his mind is constantly back in Poland with “the woman of [his] life.” When Zula finally arrives, they are happy only until she begins to resent how Paris has changed him. By the time they’re both back in Poland, we realize that their path is not an orbit, but a tragic downward spiral.
While the writing and direction reach great heights, it is Kot and Kulig’s performances that allow the film to soar. They are an explosive pair, full of thunderous expressions and quiet angst that crackles when they’re onscreen together. With every prolonged kiss, they give Bogart and Bergman a run for their money. It is because of these two that we are willing to forgive how reticent the film is in filling in the details of their characters’ pasts and the mystery of their opportunities for escape. We know nothing of Wiktor’s history, and Zula’s past is so obscured that even Wiktor might not have all the details. The plot moves forward with revelations that fall from the characters’ lips like single notes amid an improvised solo. Yet none of this matters to anyone onscreen or off. For Wiktor and Zula, in every moment together, there is only now.
Perhaps this explains the film’s stark dynamics. For a film about two musicians, Cold War alternates between overwhelming volume and calming silence, seemingly unable to find a happy medium. Even in the film’s earliest moments, when Wiktor is collecting samples of rural folk musicians, this sense of contrast is evident. These local musicians sing loudly, looking at the camera as though they are asking you if they are playing the right notes. The folk troupe’s performances are displays of power more than emotion, where massive choirs belt propaganda with beautiful blank faces.
“Between overwhelming volume and calming silence…”
The first truly transcendent musical moment of the film doesn’t occur until Wiktor tests Zula’s range during their early days with the troupe. As she improvises down from an arpeggio, he lands on a major seventh chord. It’s a stark and resplendent contrast to the standard major/minor chords we’ve been hearing up until this point, a burst of color amid the film’s stunning black and white cinematography (DP: Łukasz Żal).
From here on out, these moments are hard to come by. While Wiktor and Zula are perfect romantic partners, they each bring baggage to their musical relationship. Zula stares bullets into Wiktor when he sneaks into Yugoslavia to watch her perform in the folk troupe that brought them together. When the two are cutting a record in Paris, Wiktor’s musical direction gives way to a series of sharp insults between the two. If peace is to be found in music, it must be found alone. Even later, when a drunken Zula lets loose, dancing with every man she can get her hands on as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” blares through a Parisian nightclub, there is a sense of abandonment to her excitement.
Ironically, although rock and roll burns up Paris’s dance floors and Gershwin fills their phonographs, America is never mentioned in Cold War. The kind of freedom available to Wiktor and Zula in the United States, where popular music is raucous and diversity is tolerated (if not respected) is unimaginable. Maybe they know better. For Wiktor and Zula, Music is a prison and an escape, a way to transcend the present moment while committing yourself to it, and neither can exist without the tension of the other.
“And neither can exist without the tension of the other.”
Throughout Cold War, I was reminded of the most recent iteration of A Star is Born, another film that chronicles the painful relationship between two musicians in love. However, I found A Star is Born’s second act to be bloated and disjunctive, stumbling on the hard transitions that make Cold War so effective. Furthermore, Cold War achieves many of A Star is Born’s goals while placing its plot within a gripping socio-political context. While it’s obvious who the Academy will honor come February, Bradley Cooper can learn a thing or two from Paweł Pawlikowski’s film about music, love, and the silence that echoes through both.