Forget the frosty title — there’s enough sizzling carnality in Cold War to the singe the screen. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose 2013 film Ida won the Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film, shoots in a gorgeous black-and-white of harsh contrasts and in harsher climates. Set in 1950s Poland — and detouring through Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, all against a background of political turmoil — it’s the story of two Polish musicians: Zula (played with raw incandescence by Joanna Kulig), who dreams of being a singer; and Wiktor (a dynamic Tomasz Kot), a jazz musician scouting for a traditional folk group that sings plaintive peasant music about longing and heartbreak.
Though Witkor is traveling with his lover and colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza), recording mountain music on the fly, he fixates immediately on the new vocialist. There’s nothing traditional about Zula; this atomic blonde is on parole having murdered her abusive father, though the woman is anything but contrite. (“He mistook me for my mother, so I showed him the difference with a knife.”) The duo come at each other like heat-seeking missiles. Then Wiktor retreats to Paris to play jazz and begs her to defect with him. Zula sticks with the troupe, now a Stalinist propaganda machine, and keeps singing. The rift starts there. So does an on-again–off-again romance, one that will last through decades, different locales and various eras of social unrest. They can’t be with each other. They can’t quit each other, either.
Over a tight 88 minute running time, Cold War lets music parallel politics, swerving from folk chorals and cool jazz to the thunderous rock & roll of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” It’s that number that sends Zula into a mad frenzy on a club dance floor, as she taunts Wiktor by gyrating against other men. Pawlikowski lets Kulig rip across the screen like a comet in this stand-out sequence. Could any relationship survive this?
Most movies would end right there. Instead, Pawlikowski leaps over years in a series of scenes in which Zula and Wiktor reunite and breakup across various borders, seeking a truce that never comes. What happens during those breaks, with cinematographer Łukasz Żal capturing every moment of monochrome intensity, is up to the audience to decode. The writer-director based the couple on his own parents, who bear the same names as his characters. It’s not their story, he’s said — what he’s given us instead is a love story that’s as sexy as it is savage, as tough as it is tender. It’s a spellbinder with a fever that won’t quit.