From the gorgeous black and white film and 4:3 Hollywood screen ratio, to the multi-cultured soundtrack backing the story of crossed lovers and political upheaval in Eastern Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War is a film of personal and political machinations, misdirected love and cultural change.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are field recorders of traditional Polish folk songs for the Polish government during the 1950s. They also train dancers and singers in authentic Polish dance and music at a state school of cultural studies.
When Zula (Johanna Kulig) auditions successfully for a place at the school, Wiktor and Zula’s relationship as mentor and student becomes a passionate love entanglement.
The intrusion of Soviet Stalinist state control over the political landscape in Poland, epitomised by the manager of the cultural school, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), eventually impacts on their relationship.
Kaczmarek adopts enthusiastically the Communist party’s suggestions that traditional songs and dance should now incorporate songs that offer praise to the party’s leaders, such as Stalin. Wiktor finds this abhorrent and contrary to the traditions that shaped the Polish people, their cultural traditions and the nation.
He wants to escape to Paris, with its freedom of musical and personal expression, to lead a bohemian life as a jazz musician and film composer. Zula is reticent to make the move, because she would lose her status as the principle dancer and singer with the Polish cultural ensemble.
The film follows them across the years during the 50s and 60s from Poland to Paris and Budapest to Berlin. Wiktor inhabits the smoky nightclubs of Paris’ jazzland while Zula shines as a featured ensemble performer in her homeland.
Despite having established relationships with other people in the intervening years, when they meet again, their abiding love is once again reignited.
Musical changes shift from Polish folk songs to the freedom of jazz and the emergence of rock and roll. Eastern European customs are rearranged by Western revolutions.
It’s a case of Zula and Wiktor not being able to live apart and being destructive when they are together. Their love for one another leaves them bruised and damaged.
Ultimately, this clash drives an impenetrable emotional barrier between Wiktor and Zula.
The musical, romantic and political strands in Cold War are intertwined to create a film with a passionate core, that shows how shifts in ideology and culture can collide with a desire for a beautiful life.